Tag Archives: Shailene Woodley

War Horse, Revisited

To Catch a Killer

by Hope Madden

To Catch a Killer is a title that begs to be forgotten, bland and obvious and broad as it is. The film is about a disgruntled and underappreciated cop with the skills to get inside the mind of a killer, skills that are being nurtured by a grizzled detective who sees potential.

So far so yawn.

And yet, filmmaker Damián Szifron’s thriller is weirdly compelling.

His visuals are on point. Fireworks, cop cars, aerial shots, sudden impact – clarity in presentation tells us what is going on long before any actor speaks.

Those actors don’t hurt. Shailene Woodley delivers an un-showy but emotionally raw central performance as a beat cop quietly desperate for a meaningful challenge.

She’s aided by Ben Mendelsohn as the beleaguered senior investigator. While Det. Lammark doesn’t offer Mendelsohn the opportunities for pathos that allowed him to create iconic characters in Slow West, Mississippi Grind, Killing Them Softly, Animal Kingdom and more, the veteran finds enough humanity to make the detective memorable.

Politics, sycophancy, scapegoating and bad decisions cripple the investigation, giving Szifron and co-writer Jonathan Wakeham a chance to impress with their script as well. No broad strokes, the script indicts media, greed, cowardice, sexism, and capitalism in turn and finds reason to empathize with the least likable characters.

Still, it follows the beats you expect from a film called To Catch a Killer about an unsung but brilliant cop finding her legs as an investigator. The film can never fully escape that dull familiarity.

The film is solidly built on understated performances, and it makes viable points. But it can’t quite stick the landing.

Rough Justice

The Mauritanian

by George Wolf

In the face of the highest of ideals, America is capable of horrible things. According to his own writings, Mohamedou Ould Salahi believed in those ideals, until he was held without charge in Guantanamo Bay for over 14 years.

Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald and a cast full of veteran talent tell the story of The Mauritanian with impressive craftsmanship, a proud conscience and a narrative cluttered with good intentions.

Not long after 9/11, Salahi (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet and The Past) was apprehended with suspicions of being a Bin Ladin confidant and the “Al-Qaeda Forrest Gump.” His was to be the first death penalty prosecution of The Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld response, until human rights attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) took up Salahi’s case pro bono.

The script, adapted from Salahi’s book by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, picks the emotional teams early. Salahi is a sympathetic character, and quickly charms Hollander’s assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) while Hollander herself remains unmoved, committed only to the rule of law.

This commitment serves her well, especially against Marine lawyer Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has a personal and professional stake in seeing Salahi put to death.

Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, One Day in September) breaks from the pack of similarly-themed films with a tone that shifts between self-congratulations and tearful apology. The “rough justice” abuse Salahi suffers is clearly barbaric but still feels sanitized, and part of a larger question the film eschews in favor of heavy hearted hindsight.

But there isn’t a false note in this cast. Even when their character arcs may feel predetermined, every player – from principals to supporting – delivers enough heart and humanity to keep the lessons of Salahi’s ordeal resonating.

Landing at a time when the conscience of the country is literally being voted on, The Mauritanian is a committed if somewhat unwieldy reminder of the stakes.

Three’s Company

Endings, Beginnings

by George Wolf

When does the guise of self discovery collapse under the reality of self absorption? Endings, Beginnings unwittingly toes that line for most of its running time, ultimately rescued by the sheer earnestness of its lead performance.

Shailene Woodley shines as Daphne, an aspiring artist who’s living in her sister’s LA pool house after quitting her job and longtime boyfriend to go find herself.

But first, she finds Frank (Sebastian Stan) and Jack (Jamie Dornan), two good friends who don’t try very hard not to let Daphne come between them. Frank’s the impulsive bad boy and Jack’s the reliable good guy, with Daphne bouncing between them while the film pretends it’s because the two men see her differently.

It’s Daphne who sees herself differently, and her inability to choose is just one of the ways Daphne’s newly-stated goal of doing good for others rings with as much authenticity as her winning the claw game at the arcade (really, she wins!).

Don’t get me wrong, an unlikeable protagonist can be more than okay, it can be a bold and challenging narrative choice. But here, director/co-writer Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) is desperate to sell us personal growth and “music to suffer to” playlists when all we keep seeing are excuses for selfishness.

The always reliable Woodley still manages to make Daphne an interesting train wreck. Her vulnerability and confusion at facing this premature midlife crisis does feel real, and Woodley elevates the film by making sure Daphne – likable or not – is a complex personality forgotten by a litany of romance fantasies.

The chemistry between Woodley, Stan and Dornan is solid, seemingly bolstered by improvisational trust amid Doremus’s abrupt cuts and flashback sketches.

Endings, Beginnings has all the parts of a consistently competent and watchable affair. But the resonant character study it aspires to be – much like the character itself – slips away simply from pretending to be something it’s not.


Current Events


by George Wolf

Opening with an extended take that efficiently moves us from confusion to desperation, director Baltasar Kormakur sets the gripping stakes of Adrift with scant dialog. His closing is equally effective, showcasing a touching humanity with nuance, and hardly a spoken word.

The journey in between is literally harrowing but cinematically uneven, a sometimes gritty testament to survival that is too often satisfied with the path more traveled.

Adapted from a memoir by Tami Oldham (Ashcraft), the film recounts her incredible ordeal surviving over month at sea in the aftermath of 1983’s Hurricane Raymond.

Oldham was traveling the world through odd jobs in exotic locales when she met fiancee Richard Sharp during a stay in Tahiti. Englishman Sharp, an experienced sailor, docked his own vessel and accepted a lucrative offer to sail a friend’s 44-foot yacht back to San Diego.

Oldham, a San Diego native with limited sailing knowledge, came aboard.

Shailene Woodley, also earning a producer credit on the film, stars as Oldham, instantly establishing an important and authentic chemistry with Sam Clafin as Sharp. The nautical metaphors (with Oldham drifting though life until Sharp becomes her anchor) may be hard to miss, but they go down easy through the talents of the lead actors.

A true life adventure such as this brings some inherent challenges to the big screen, and Kormakur meets them with understandably familiar narrative choices.

The time alone at sea is layered with flashbacks to how Tami and Richard’s bond was formed, both deepening our connection to them and breaking up the lonely stretches at sea through crowd-pleasing fun and romance.

As the situation grows more desperate, pleasing flirts with pandering, and Kormakur weakens the emotional impact with some unnecessary spoon-feeding.

When the couple sails into the teeth of the hurricane, it bites hard, giving Kormakur (Everest, 2 Guns, Contraband) the chance to flash his action flair via a breathtaking storm sequence.

The film’s tale is truly compelling, and it does deliver satisfying stretches while staying cautious of any narrative risks that might seem disrespectful.

Even at its most dangerous, Adrift feels ironically safe.

Same as the Old Boss

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

by Hope Madden

For anyone waiting with bated breath for the conclusion of Tris Pryor’s heroic quest through the Divergent series, expect to be disappointed by The Divergent Series: Allegiant. The final book in the series has been split into two films – a choice we should, by this time, expect from a cash cow-ready industry.

For anyone hoping for a bit of entertainment regardless of the split, you should also expect to be disappointed. Director Robert Schwentke’s slick but soulless third act can’t overcome the dull pacing, superficial scripting, or one dimensional characters that have plagued the series since its inception.

Tris (Shailene Woodlely) broke from the factions that kept her society separated, then toppled the dictatorship that sought to oppress her people. Now she sees the same mistakes being made, but she believes there is something more beyond the wall around the city. She and her rag tag group of friends will find what’s out there – but what if it’s just more of the same?

Unfortunately for Tris and for all of us, that is exactly what the film offers. More and more and more of the exact same – all of it handled with far more energy and integrity in the Hunger Games series.

Woodley is a genuine talent, but she doesn’t seem to have the energy to even try, and who can blame her? She’s wasted in one more film where she does little more then look ponderous, then look thoughtful, now fierce but vulnerable.

Miles Teller – another actual talent – also returns as the woefully underused opportunist, and though his dialog is just as flat and obvious as everyone else’s, he does offer the only bright spots in an otherwise endless expanse of blandness.

Schwentke’s visual style offers slapped together images from Seventies SciFi, while his direction goes the extra mile when it comes to telegraphing every line, move, or event in the film. The final product is a by-the-numbers adolescent adventure lacking all energy and imagination.

And there’s still one more to get through.





Stand Still, Look Evil


by George Wolf

Just last year, Divergent glimpsed a dystopian future where destinies rose and fell with the company you kept, and social cliques were used to enforce a merciless pecking order. In short, high school all over again.

Insurgent, part two in the latest “three books as four movies” franchise, ups the ante on action, but delivers little more than some flashy CGI amid a formula growing increasingly tiresome.

Tris Pryor (Shailene Woodley) and her boyfriend Four (Theo James) are on the run from henchmen sent by Council leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Seems Jeanine has uncovered a strange, Hellraiser-looking puzzle box containing a message that could end the civil strife among her subjects. But this box can only be opened by a “divergent” with enough specialness to pass a variety of deadly tests…so Jeanine is hunting them all down to find the one.

Whoops, I mentioned “the one,” so I’ll pause now while director Robert Schwentke swoops in for a quick tight shot of Tris looking pensive. Get used to it.

There are some nifty visual sequences, but the core of Insurgent remains overly familiar young adult elements and overly bland presentation. The special girl burdened with a uniqueness she didn’t ask for, angst, melodrama, parental issues, walking among the rubble…all the basics are here. Ironic, then, that Schwentke (R.I.P.D., Red) doesn’t seem interested in moving his film beyond the ordinary.

The dream/virtual reality red herrings are as numerous as they are obvious, and those high drama arm -grab turnarounds are better left to the daytime soaps. Woodley is one of the best young actresses working, and she is plenty spunky during Insurgent‘s action scenes, but she’s saddled with dialogue and direction that is difficult to elevate. Even the great Winslet is reduced to standing still and looking villainous.

Attempts at social commentary are clunky at best, while contrivance in the script finally gives way to outright laziness, as when the common folk are enslaved by a behavior modifying implant which can’t be removed – until it is.

Tris is told, “We finally found a way to remove it.” Okay, then.

Two more Divergent films may be coming, but Insurgent will only leave you eager for the next round of Hunger Games.





Girl Gone


White Bird in a Blizzard

by George Wolf

Ready for a pulpy mess of lust and mystery? Gregg Araki’s White Bird in Blizzard serves it up with mixed results, buoyed by another terrific performance from Shailene Woodley.

Woodley is Kat, a 17 year-old high schooler in LA. It is 1988, and just as Kat is blossoming into womanhood, her mother Eve (Eva Green) is withdrawing into a bitter, vindictive drunk. When Eve suddenly vanishes, Kat appears unconcerned, even while her father Brook (Christopher Meloni) is reporting the disappearance to police and hanging “missing” flyers all over town.

Kat’s boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), her two best friends (Gabourey Sidibe, Mark Indelicato) and her therapist (Angela Bassett) all try to comfort her during the stressful time, but Kat insists she is fine. Frequent, vivid dreams about her mother suggest otherwise.

Director Araki, who also wrote the screenplay, adapts Laura Kasische’s novel with wildly shifting tones, anchoring the film with the solid portrayal of a sensitive young woman while surrounding her with surreal dreamscapes and over-hyped dramatics.

We hear a marriage described as “a lone drink of water from a frozen fountain,” and watch a character walk slowly away before turning on heel to proclaim, “I will tell you one thing’!” amid set-pieces bursting with kitsch.

And there’s Green, in manic Mommie Dearest mode, vamping it up in skimpy attire for her daughter’s boyfriend, then leaning back to release a condescending guffaw in her husband’s face. Green’s performance is can’t-look-away hypnotic, even as it crashes headlong into her young co-star’s authenticity.

Woodley continues to show the chops of a future Oscar winner, and she makes Kat’s complex emotions ring true, no matter what noir trash is going on around her. As Kat screams “What is wrong with you? Are you insane?” at her mother’s antics, the outburst cuts deeper than it has a right to.

The erratic flashbacks and anticlimactic ending add to a temptation to the label the entire project as simply amateurish, but Araki’s resume (Mysterious Skin/Kaboom) suggests otherwise. He’s got a vision for White Bird in a Blizzard and he sees it through in so many ways, some of them can’t help but feel right.





Romance Porn


The Fault in Our Stars

by George Wolf

With Don Jon last year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wondered if maybe, idealized romance fantasies can be as harmful to actual relationships as pornography.

The Fault in Our Stars is just the latest example to make his point.

Based on the best seller by John Green, it centers on an ordinary teenage girl (who of course narrates, to reinforce the feeling for the teenage girls watching that it’s their story, too). But she’s not really ordinary, she’s just waiting for that dreamy boy to come into her life and instantly see the special snowflake that she truly is, forsaking everything in his own life to make sure she feels special every special second of every special day.

Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel, a young cancer patient who dreads her support group, but goes just to make her parents happy. Then, one day, Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) comes to group, takes one look at Hazel and is instantly infatuated.

So, this time, the young lovers have to deal with cancer, adding an extra layer of manipulation opportunity to be explored.

Early on, Hazel expresses disdain for those unrealistic stories where “nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song.” Then, guess what? Some of those songs on the soundtrack are nothing more than bad Peter Gabriel rip-offs.

Woodley is a gifted actress, and does manage to bring some depth to Hazel, who admittedly is the most well-rounded character in the script. Augustus is a one-dimensional mess, and Elgort (“Tommy” in the recent Carrie remake) can do little more than cast adoring glances and mug for the camera. But really, that’s what he’s there for, anyway.

Movies like this (and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Spectacular Now, and…) want you to believe their characters are unconventional and their message is insightful, when the exact opposite is true.

The Fault in Our Stars is the same old bill of goods.




Apparently High School Still Sucks


by Hope Madden

High school sucks, but like all harrowing experiences and universal truths, it can lead to valid and valued artistic expression – nearly all modern adolescent literature, for instance.

Whether it’s The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game or the more clearly allegorical Divergent, the story is basically the same: a powerful system requires helpless parents to submit their precious children to bloodsport (high school); cliques are mindless and dangerous; the kid with the most power is a manipulative asshole; only the outcast can ultimately thrive. (Hell, even the magnificent Harry Potter series plays off the same riff.)

While it doesn’t make prom seem very appealing, in the hands of professionals, it can make for a compelling tale.

Director Neil Burger does a lot right with this film. Not everything, but a lot. He’s blessed with a straightforward script that won’t confuse the uninitiated. A hundred years after a great war, the world is broken into factions, each of which match individual personality types (and, to a certain degree, high school cliques): the smart kids (Erudite), the nice kids (Abnegation), the pot heads – I mean, happy, peaceful types (Amity), the honest (Candor), and the brave/fun/bully/popular kids (Dauntless). And then there are the dreaded factionless – a fate worse than death, like unpopularity.

People stay with their faction, and all is peaceful. But unique souls who don’t really fit – divergents –  threaten the system.

Divergent also boasts two profound talents: Kate Winslet and Shailene Woodley. Winslet commands respect and awe as leader of the Erudites and general evildoer. Woodley plays our hero, the divergent Tris.

Both performers deserve stronger material, to be honest. While the screenplay, adapted from Veronica Roth’s novel by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, offers a fairly smooth streamlining of the story, it too often proves a bit toothless. The strength of the performers helps to compel attention. Woodley’s onscreen chemistry with Theo James as love interest Four gives the film a pulse, and her big-eyed vulnerability makes the sense of loss and longing palpable.

Too bad Berger felt it necessary to include so much exposition. An unfortunate symptom lately of Episodes 1 of a trilogy, Divergent simply takes so long to get to the action that you get bored.

Roth’s source material offers several clever conceits to play with, and both Woodley and Winslet seem game, but Berger can’t quite settle on a tone or a pace. It’s too bad, because comparisons to The Hunger Games are inevitable, and Divergent could easily have become a worthwhile companion to JLaw’s Kickass Quadrilogy. Instead it’s a fun but forgettable way to waste time before the real blockbusters release this summer.






Weekend Countdown: Best Young Actresses Not Named Jennifer Lawrence

Shailene Woodley, the 21-year-old who stole scenes from Clooney in The Descendents, finally returns to the big screen with another awe-inspiring turn in this week’s The Spectacular Now. Woodley is part of a remarkable wave of young female talent worth celebrating. Therefore, this weekend’s countdown: 9 brilliant young actresses not named Jennifer Lawrence.

Quvenzhane Wallis

This nine-year-old boasts an Oscar nomination, a forthcoming historical drama co-starring Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, and the lead in the next silver screen version of little orphan Annie’s scrappy story. Her cherubic face and startling talent offers hope for the future of the industry.


Kara Hayward

Fourteen and brilliant (honestly – she’s a member of Mensa), Hayward made an impression as the heavily eye-lined lovestruck teen in Moonrise Kingdom. Let’s hope Hollywood knows how to make the most of her deadpan genius.


Chloe Moretz

Sure, Kick-Ass 2 disappointed, but the hard-working Moretz doesn’t. Now 16, she has more acting credits than everyone else on this list combined. She’s played disdainful, vulnerable, mean, sweet, blood sucker and victim, and soon she’ll reprise the role Sissy Spacek made infamous. We can’t wait to see what she can do at the prom.

Elle Fanning

The touching, versatile younger sister in an acting clan, this 15-year-old may be the most impressive talent on the list. She has a quiet reserve that draws comparison to Meryl Streep – heady company, but Fanning may just be the one who can live up to it.

Rachel Mwanza

You may not know this impressive talent, but her first professional work in the Oscar nominated War Witch proves her uncanny natural ability. Her devastating, understated performance marks the work of a natural artist and we are eager to see her follow up.

Hailee Steinfeld

She received her first Oscar nomination at 16 for a powerhouse performance that stood up to the likes of Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges in True Grit. She’s been quiet since, but she’ll churn out an impressive number of films in the next two years, including a starring role in Romeo and Juliet this February.

Saoirse Ronan

Oscar nominations, action flicks, period piece drama, teen angst pics, accents aplenty – this chameleonic 19-year-old can seem to handle anything. She’s been an international acting force since childhood and we are eager to see what adulthood brings.


Saskia Roendahl

Another unfamiliar name, perhaps, but 20-year-old Roendahl made the world take note when she brought tender resilience to the devastating war pic Lore. Like Fanning and Mwanza, she suggests a quiet, wary wisdom with her performances that should help her carve out a brilliant career.


Shailene Woodley

And back to Woodley, 21, a refreshingly natural performer whose choices mark someone who wants to act rather than someone who wants to be a star. Like her impressive colleagues on this list, she offers hope to those of us who love movies and thrill to see the next generation of Streeps, Blanchettes, Winslets, Moores and Closes begin their cinematic takeover.