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New films: The Giver plus three moviebriefs

the giver

The Giver
Directed by Philip Noyce

It’s hard to consider “The Giver” without thinking about the timing of its wide release this week. The film is based on the 1993 Newberry Medal winning novel of the same name that is required reading for many schoolchildren. It was optioned for a film adaptation by Jeff Bridges only a couple of years later but, for various reasons, took almost 20 years to come to the big screen.

A lot has happened in those 20 years. Whereas an earlier adaptation would have caused inevitable comparisons to films such as “Pleasantville,” the intervening years have seen the Young Adult literature segment take off with such hit series as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” each of which have dystopian future society themes, as does “The Giver.” Indeed, that market segment has become dominated by dystopias, apocalypses, and vampires.

However, “The Giver” has a more simplistic tone and was written for younger readers than the often brutal action of some of these other, more recent stories. It’s not that “The Giver” doesn’t have mature themes, after all it deals with eugenics and the forced killing of senior citizens, but it’s all very clean – it doesn’t, for example, yield a film in which teenagers are slaughtering each other in assorted bloody ways.

In “The Giver,” a future version of our society, or some subset of it, has been (literally) drugged and engineered to live a very muted existence. ‘Family units’ are placed together, everybody eats, recreates, and sleeps at the same time, and children are raised in nurseries, given to family units, and then assigned work duties when they achieve adulthood. That is, assuming they weren’t scheduled for ‘release’ for being troublesome/high maintenance babies.

The outcome is a strangely ‘PG’ feeling blend of stories that came before and after it – like “Divergent” meets “Logan’s Run.” What is stranger is that the film is actually rated PG-13, the same as many similar but far more violent films, which adds to criticisms of the MPAA (the rating agency) and sets up the odd dynamic of children tending to read the story at a younger age than they’re recommended to watch the film adaptation.

The other interesting part of the timing is the release of the film in the week that comedian and actor Robin Williams died. Williams’ death has prompted a broader conversation, at least briefly, on the topic of depression and mental illness. In “The Giver,” an entire society is being treated as if suffering from a condition that is manageable through medication, but the individuals are left with a limited range of emotions. Suppressing hate also means suppressing love. Similarly, anxiety has disappeared but so has joy – with both highs and lows trimmed away from a seemingly stable middle ground of emotion.

In this society, there is a pragmatic realization that although the general population is sheltered from the horrors of human nature, the wars, the massacres, the famine, etc., somebody needs to remain familiar with the full range of human history to help the elders avoid stumbling into the same mistakes again. And so one person is designated to maintain a library of books and images of both the best and the worst of human achievement, with that archive kept out of sight of the general population.

The problem with this system, as told in the story, is that when a young person is assigned to take over that duty, they tend to be outraged by the range of what is being kept from their society. Which leads to obvious questions about the nature of humanity if human nature itself is suppressed. But it’s also reminiscent of what some people have said about drugs that treat illness by suppressing emotional highs and lows and why it may be so tempting to stop taking such medications.

Sadly, although still thought provoking for a younger audience, “The Giver” tells a story about a bland society and ends up doing so somewhat blandly. It’s probably a story that would have seemed more groundbreaking, or at least noteworthy, if it had made it to film much sooner without the disadvantage of newer stories that cover similar ground in more showy fashion. It that sense, it reminds me of “John Carter” which took far longer to be adapted and ended up seeming derivative of stories it preceded by decades. Twenty years ago, “The Giver” was somewhat pioneering in taking these classic dystopian themes to a young audience, whereas now it’s coming to audiences who are having similar topics thrown at them on an almost monthly basis.

 

Moviebriefs

Daniel Radcliffe plays an unlucky in love geek in the surprisingly cute and funny “What If” opposite Zoe Kazan. And much of the success of the film stems from their onscreen chemistry and equally adorable awkwardness around each other. They’re ostensibly attempting to be just friends despite every indication that they have greater feelings for each other, surrounded by friends and family giving variously awful advice. It starts a little slowly but picks up nicely and my midnight audience of just two people produced enough laughter for many more.

Perhaps the least accessible film I’ve seen that being released this week is “Calvary” starring Brendan Gleeson as a catholic priest in a small town in Ireland. On the surface it seems depressingly bleak and as if the world, or at least Ireland, is filled with nothing but awful people doing awful things. But the film is satirical and his congregation is populated by people with intentionally exaggerated circumstances and conditions in order to illustrate the life and existence of the priest who moves among them all, knowing their ugly secrets and having to maintain relationships. All of which finally comes to a head when a parishioner, during confession, tells him of his intention to murder the priest the following week because of the past transgressions of the Church. As such, as a satire of society and organized religion and one man carrying the sins of others, “Calvary” is very effective – but it’s likely to put off most viewers, especially if they’re not aware of quite what they’re in for.

There’s another round of old people shooting random foreign people in “Expendables 3” but with the added twist of young people shooting random foreign people. It’s an apparently pragmatic attempt to appeal to younger viewers than the core audience of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, et al., but what it ends up doing is adding so many cast members that few get much screen time anyway. And Antonio Banderas may have created one of the least appealing people onscreen since Roberto Benigni at the 1999 Academy Awards telecast (as soon he and Sylvester Stallone are alone in an airport hanger, go to the bathroom). That said, the only thing that really matters in a film like this are the action sequences and the witty one liners – both of which seem on a par with the prior two films, with the action shots actually appearing more authentically filmed. Plus, Harrison Ford joins the cast which is sometimes cool and sometimes a little has been-ish, but mostly positive on balance. Naturally, the fighting makes absolutely no sense, but it never has and people still seem to dig it.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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