Recommended: The Giver
If you liked: Equilibrium
Why: Entertainment Weekly calls The Giver “too little, too late,” meaning that despite the fact that Lois Lowry’s novel may have launched this generation’s dystopian trend back in the 90s, the movie doesn’t really feel so much like a pioneer and it’s a poor echo of Divergent (which was a poorer echo of Hunger Games) and that at the end of the day it’s just another tale about small people saving the world from big people so YAWN.
My own expectations were barely off the ground, but I shelled out ten bucks for a theater seat anyway because I knew I’d be inspired by at least 1% (writing, as I am, a middle-grade novel about smaller people saving the world from bigger people).
Imagine my surprise when I liked it. Thoroughly. The whole thing. The movie pleased me from the first second to the last. It doesn’t quite finish what it starts (the climax is over and gone like a popped balloon), but man, the highest praise I can give it is that it feels exactly like the book—calm, gentle, strong, insightful, warm, happy, gripping—before ninja-creeping up from behind and hitting you quite hard in your hard little heart. Because that’s what America has: a hard little heart that needs to repent and bleed. I haven’t seen such a fierce strike against abortion since Ray Comfort’s 180. I won’t spoil the story by telling how. Just watch it.
And about that pioneer thing—I never would have guessed that this was the fourth major production of a dystopian novel in just over two years, because frankly, The Giver feels no pressure to define the genre; it doesn’t need to. Like the book, it seems simply and confidently to begin the genre. And if it poorly echoes Divergent and Hunger Games, that’s because it isn’t groundbreakingly edgy or reeking of angst and Darwinian despair. And by the way, Jeff Bridges is amazing and his unfairly cute Aussie protégé is perfectly cast. So watch it.
Recommended: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
If you liked: anything clever and light but serious and actually important
Why: First off, it’s a miracle that I can actually enjoy an Amy Adams film at all. So let’s file that away as proof #1 that this must be a good movie indeed. Second, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day centers on an upright, clergy-raised spinster who saves everyone around her simply by being who she is (an upright, clergy-raised spinster)–and then she herself is saved. She is the catalyst in the thick of busy, disordered lives, yet by the end she has also become the gold made beautiful in the crucible of the surrounding crazy. Lee Pace, Mark Strong, and yeah, sure, I guess Amy Adams are all super, but it’s Ciaran Hinds who quietly steals the show from his fellow sidekicks to edge up there with the lovely Frances McDormand. His closing lines are my favorite bit of dialogue in the whole film.
Recommended: The Monuments Men
Why: I understand why this wasn’t a smash-the-records blockbuster, but really, why all the grumpy critics? If they were expecting something slick and stylish or else serious and, well, monumental, then they were silly. What this is is a little-known aspect of World War Two which was a world war in more ways than one: not simply because Hitler declared war against so much of the world, but because it was a war which he declared for the world. He wanted it all. The monster comes out when you see how he treated the Jews; the ego comes out when you see the beauty and culture he demanded for his footstool. And George Clooney takes an interesting approach: Great Escape buoyancy punctuated with stark moments of Schindler’s List—moments which strike harder because of the contrast. Honestly, I was moved to tears for both sad and happy reasons in this film (which is extremely rare). Optimistic with witty dialogue, real characters, and fun music, it is a deeply grateful film.
Action With a Brain
Recommended: The Maze Runner
If: you liked The Hunger Games, but not really
Why: Of all the YA dystopian films (the latest in a recent volley), The Maze Runner attempts the least and nails it most aggressively. I was hooked immediately and the movie kept me guessing all the way till the last second (and even after; hurry up, sequel!). To be sure, the premise isn’t as thought-provoking as some of the others; The Hunger Games is clearly more groundbreaking and Divergent more relevant to modern culture, but neither of those supply satisfactory answers to their own dilemmas. The Maze Runner is simply fast, gripping, and entertaining, a sort of Lord of the Flies-The Pit and the Pendulum hybrid.
It succeeds best as a thriller and less as a societal study; if the storytellers had really wanted to put a group of boys under a microscope, they should have probed a lot further and gone into much darker places. Indeed, this is the only place where the movie disappoints: The plot’s wild card is introducing a girl into the mix (supposedly an earth-shaking switcheroo), but there’s zero exploration of the effect this would actually have on an all-raging-testosterone village in which the strongest boys are convinced this wilderness is their home and who would therefore be very interested (for many reasons) in having a girl around. The movie disregards this and refuses to even develop the girl herself. Who is she? Why does she look like the hero’s sister? Is she naturally quiet or just naturally constipated? She’s a flat, stifled nuisance (see, I don’t even remember her name). Ignore her like the boys do and you’ll be fine.
If you liked: Elysium (but please note that you shouldn’t have)
Why: Snowpiercer was a lot better than I thought it was going to be. (I sense a pattern this week.) I’m comparing it with Elysium because both films have a distinctly non-American look and feel, and both tackle grim futures where the haves are pitted against the have-nots. The difference is that while the hero of Elysium shoots, maims, and kills his way to universal healthcare (revolution style), the hero of Snowpiercer fights a true war for independence against not just lucky rich folk, but real black-hearted, complacent tyrants who grind the poor and fatherless under their feet. And Chris Evans is quite the hero. You don’t learn a lot about his backstory for a frustratingly long time, but it’s worth the wait. Though I couldn’t quite believe every move the plot makes towards the end, the weakness is negligible compared to the man at the center: a selfish survivalist with a scalding redemption story. And incidentally, if you’re still looking for proof that Evans can act, this is it.