Skip to main content

When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong. Every single time.

The Giver
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Could The Giver be an unsuspecting polemic depicting the dangers of all that is left thinking; the final destination of those seeking to treat all equally and fairly (or progressivism, to use the four-letter-word)? If Sarah Palin thinks so, then most probably not. But who knows, perhaps well-known Hollywood liberals Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, and Oz-man Philip Noyce, took leave of their senses, joined forces with Harvey Scissorhands, and gave the poor neglected right the parable they most desired?


Perhaps, but not likely. Certainly, it would be possible to single out a few elements as feeding into bugbears of the right. But it would also be possible to find something to parallel the extremes of any totalitarian regime of any political persuasion. To that extent, The Guardian, perhaps not so much a bastion of rigorous thinking these days, has it right. Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel has been both a set text and an excluded one in US schools, presumably depending on which side of the perceived political divide the schools lie. Or possibly they just feel threatened at the idea of their pupils thinking for themselves and rebelling against authority. Which is, of course, common to pretty much every single dystopian future society out there, and is absolutely essential to any Young Adult fiction, of which this had a head start.


The Weinsteins continue their current knack for having absolutely no feeling for the YA market (following the bomb that is Vampire Academy), but really The Giver is little better or worse than the other new notables last year (Divergent, The Maze Runner), even though it did only a fraction of their business. Noyce is a solid pair of hands, albeit always more impressive with smaller, more personal projects than as a studio gun for hire. He keeps the pace up; the picture wastes little time getting from Point A to B, while throwing in sufficient time to debating its issues that the thematic content isn’t short-changed.


As is de rigueur with such tales, the focus is on a chosen one, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). At his career graduation, he is announced as Receiver of Memory. Jonas will be released from the passive, regimented society around him to take instruction from the Giver (Jeff Bridges). The Giver was formerly a receiver and in time Jonas will become the next Giver, etc. The purpose of this? To carry the memories of the time before The Ruin (the name for a non-specific apocalyptic event) and advise the leaders of society on particular key areas where they have limited knowledge. Of course, opening up someone who has been drugged and directed his whole life is unpredictable. So much so, one might suggest that, since the last receiver also went awry, it might not be such a bankable system. Jonas begins to buck this system and so threaten its very foundations.


There are some nice ideas here. The Pleasantville-esque use of black and white gradually changes to colour as the Jonas’ world opens up. But that’s also part of the problem. Much of this is rather familiar. The opening sections, where Jonas and his chums (Odeya Rush as Fiona and Cameron Monaghan as Asher) are overpoweringly similar to Divergent, where everyone is given their set task but the special one finds him/herself without such a comfort blanket. 


Jonas is young apprentice to an oddball mentor, who guides him spiritually, which could be anyone from Obi Wan Kenobi onwards. I particularly liked his description of dreams, "a combination of reality, fantasy, emotion, and what you had for dinner". Jeff Bridges is good value, as ever. He is also a credited producer, having steered the project over the course of nearly two decades (during which he intended the Giver to be his father’s role). The downside is that he seems to have decided mumble-mouth is the thing for him going forward (see also, True Grit, R.I.P.D.). Still, he gets to play the piano, which must have been nice for him.


Some of the tropes and devices are on the simplistic side. This is a picture where someone actually offers the line "What does love mean?" The dystopian utopia looks appropriately pristine, but is equipped with budget-conscious bicycles and drones, We assume the Giver and his connection with Jonas is genuinely telepathic, but Noyce isn’t quite so imaginative with his choices of first person experience (indeed, the whole sled thing is a little twee; I kept hoping Orson Welles would pop out from a snowdrift). When the memory-imbuing climax arrives, it has the élan of a low-rent Terrence Malick.


The passive nature of the society doesn’t bear too much close scrutiny either, although I guess Lowry might have provided more detail in her novel.  Do the Elders take different daily drugs to the rest, in order to have greater wherewithal? Certainly, Meryl’s Chief Elder is much more feisty, proactive and suspicious. Do the guards with sticks have a bit of aggression in their dose?


Or are they like Jonas’ dad (Alexander Skarsgard), killing babies while talking to them softly, unconscious of what he is doing? It is this, and the reading into it of commentary on abortion and euthanasia, which have been held up by many reading this as right-leaning text. Rather more potent is the underlying idea of the passive acceptance of dictated morality, particularly given how easy it is for a nation as a whole to pitch into what would be considered morally repugnant when the right (or wrong) leader comes along and persuades them (or just as bad. they go with the flow).


Robert B Weide (of Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Michael Mitnick can’t get past the pretty big magical wand that needs to be waved in the third act, which rather deflates an engaging first two-thirds. The problem is partly that the world presented is classically futuristic-scientific, yet the barrier Jonas crosses, from Elsewhere to beyond, in order to release memories to everyone, feels rather arbitrarily mystical. It’s not just blowing everything up, as we are used to; it relies on a big “Because it’s so”.


Noyce does his best to pull the scenes off dramatically. Jonas coming across the sled lends a slightly dreamlike spin (the only serious way to explain his saving baby Gabe from certain doom beneath the waves) and his fate is left open-ended (but not by the sequels). Both Skarsgard and Katie Holmes (as Jonas’ mother) put in strong performances of the feeling-but-not-too-much variety (perhaps this was Katie’s Tom-detox role), and Streep manages to make the defence of her way (“People are weak, people are selfish”) almost compelling (and what the hell did they do to her face in the movie posters?) Thwaites, Rush and Taylor Swift (as the Giver’s daughter in flashbacks) are also decent.


There’s nothing here to set the world on fire, but The Giver is at least thematically more coherent than either Divergent of The Maze Runner, even if that wearing of its heart on its sleeve is also part of the reason it dissatisfies. It seems to think its ideas are enough, which they may be as tailored by the right. To the rest of us, well it’s familiar and mostly agreeable (and, if you’re its primary audience, a bit lacking in the action stakes compared to its YA fellows).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times.

The Owl Service
Episode Two
Huw tells the story of the Mabinogion (“Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times”). Roger takes on both an investigatory position and a reluctant one (he conceals Alison’s scratch with a plaster, perhaps embarrassed by the carnal passions it implies). And no one seems all that concerned about the vanishing plate designs (although the others think Alison must have done it).

The tensions between the trio have started to mount up. Most effective is the scene where Gwyn confronts Alison. Clad in a bikini, she lies on a sun lounger reading the Mabinogion. As Gwyn angrily sends the book flying, we see quick cuts of her painted face (“You shouldn’t have done that!”) and the sound of fluttering pages/birds as he flees, apparently pursued by something. And then they make up, as if all is fine and it was just a lover’s tiff. Now Roger, wearing, Alison’s sunglasses and with an impassive expression suggesting subdued jealousy, observes them. Roger gets many of the …