‘The Darkest Minds’ is the Same Old Young Adult Song and Dance

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I went into “The Darkest Minds” thinking it was a “X-Men” spinoff. It deals with kids who have been ostracized from society once they are revealed to have obtained superpowers under mysterious circumstances, and it is being distributed by 20th Century Fox which also distributes the “X-Men” movies. With this in mind, I kept waiting for the main characters to yell out “mutant freedom” as loudly as those teenagers from “Red Dawn” cried out “Wolverines!” at any given opportunity. Lord knows the “X-Men” franchise shows no signs of slowing down even after the dramatic conclusion of “Logan.”

Well, it turns out “The Darkest Minds” is not an “X-Men” movie, but instead another adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel which takes place in an apocalyptic future. Written by Alexandra Bracken, this novel led to a series of others, so clearly Hollywood has set its sights on another potential franchise. But while “The Darkest Minds” might have seemed enthralling on the page, it comes off as just another young adult adventure on the silver screen. After the burnout of the “Divergent” franchise, I figured Hollywood would have finally tired of taping into the young adult book market, but these movies do still represent an a strong opportunity for studios to reach out to most desirable of demographics.

Once again, we are thrust into a dystopian future where the pandemic I.A.A.N. (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration) has killed 98% of humans under the age of 20. The rest who have survived develop amazing psychic powers under mysterious circumstances, and we all know how quick the world is to react to those people who are different. These children are quickly rounded up and sent to internment camps where they are separated from their families and identified by colors. And yes, there is a President of the United States (played by Bradley Whitford) determined to find a cure for this epidemic, but it is no surprise to see him flaunting a phony child reform program which those brainwashed my certain news channels are quick to believe in. Sound familiar? I mean, heaven forbid “The Darkest Minds” reflect today’s reality in any way, shape or form, you know?

Among these children is Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl who accidentally erased her existence from the minds of her parents. On a scale, which looks a lot like the Homeland Security Advisory System, she is listed as an orange which classifies her as the most dangerous of the kids afflicted with psychic powers. But thanks to her mental powers which help her perform a mind trick much like the kind Obi-Wan Kenobi performed in “Star Wars,” she is able to escape the mandatory execution her kind gets. But even she knows it is only a matter of time before she is found out.

For a time, I thought “The Darkest Minds” would become the most politically subversive movie since “They Live,” but it eventually devolves into just another young adult adventure which is like so many we have seen previously. It features a strong and demographically desirable female character who looks to be the one to save humanity and/or dominate society in a way those in power are eager to take advantage of, and the story ends on a cliffhanger as the studio is unsurprisingly eager to make a sequel. But watching this movie reminded me of a little tidbit I read in Premiere Magazine back when it was in print as it summed up another potential franchise in a short sentence:

“’Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…’ and ends.”

Ruby manages to escape the camp with the help of the kindly Doctor Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), but when she feels Cate may have other plans in mind for her, she flees and meets up with a group of kids who have also been afflicted with psychic powers and are just as demographically desirable. This group includes the rugged Liam Stewart (Harris Dickinson), the highly intelligent Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and the electrifying Zu (Miya Cech) who has since been rendered mute. As you can expect, Ruby and Liam get the hots for one another, and its hard not to laugh at the romantic scenes they have as their dialogue threatens to be as awkward as what Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were forced to utter in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”

Everything in “The Darkest Minds” feels like it was borrowed from some other movie. The kids discover a radio signal alerting them to a haven for I.A.A.N. kids, and it seems stolen from a similar scene in “28 Days Later.” The dance scene where Ruby and Liam get a little more intimate kept reminding me of the giant rave scene from “The Matrix Reloaded,” and not in a good way. Ruby’s ability to erase memories from the minds of others feels like a direct steal from “Superman II” as Clark Kent found a way to cure Lois Lane of her heartbreak. I know Hollywood movies are seriously lacking in originality these days, so this one ends up looking extremely desperate for ideas as a result.

When the kids get to use their mysteriously acquired powers, their eyes light up a certain color, and I kept waiting for Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” to start playing on the soundtrack. As for the powers they possess, I was not particularly impressed with them as they are much like the kind in every “X-Men” movie. I do have to say, however, that Zu doe a more impressive job of channeling electricity than Jamie Foxx ever did in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of “The Darkest Minds” is the endless number of plot holes which the dinosaurs from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” could have been quick to escape through. In a time where kids are being hunted by the government, how did Ruby and her friends manage to acquire a hotel room? When the kids invade a mall which has been abandoned for some time, how could they possibly find a new and unexpired bottle of Vitamin Water in it? And when the main characters arrive at a haven for kids of their kind and discover the person who leads it, shouldn’t this have raised their suspicions almost immediately? It is questions like these which make this young adult adventure unbearable at times to sit through.

For what it’s worth, “The Darkest Minds” fares better than some of the other young adult adventures I have seen in recent years. It proved to be more entertaining and memorable than “The 5th Wave,” and I was more interested in checking this one out than I was in watching any of “The Maze Runner” movies. Amandla Stenberg does give a very strong performance as Ruby, and she makes us invest fully in her character’s endless conflicts and dilemmas. It was also great to see Gwendoline Christie show up as Lady Jane, a bounty hunter of superpowered teens. Her character is essentially Captain Phasma from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” but without the helmet. Christie is a thrilling presence here, and that’s even though she disappears from the movie far too soon.

“The Darkest Minds” ends up traveling down a cinematic path which has been trodden on more often than not, and what results is a motion picture which is coming out five years later than it should. Even its target audience must be worn out from these different variations of the same story as nothing new is brought to the table. Despite the efforts of the filmmakers, this young adult adventure is inescapably ordinary, and I don’t think we will be seeing a follow up to it in the near future.

However, I do have to take the time to award Wade Williams with the John P. Ryan award for overacting in a motion picture. As the brutal military leader called The Captain, he chews the scenery with his endless snarling at others, and I could not help but laugh hysterically. Clearly this is not going to go down as his best work, but here he was never less than entertaining.

* * out of * * * *

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Get Out

Get Out movie poster

You know the main characters of this movie are in trouble once they hit a deer. Of this, I speak from my own experience as my dad drove me to the airport one time and ran over a deer which walked into his traffic lane. It was not his fault as the deer came out of nowhere, and there wasn’t any time to hit the brakes to avoid an animal oblivious to the Volvo station wagon heading straight at him (or her). Nevertheless, a week later I got laid off from my job. Looking back, hitting the deer proved to be an omen of bad things to come, and losing my job was one of them.

I was reminded of this as I watched the opening minutes of “Get Out,” an insidiously clever horror movie with the occasional dose of humor thrown in. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are driving up an empty stretch of road to meet her parents when they slam into a deer. There’s nothing they can do to help the animal, and the police officer who arrives at the scene asks for Chris’ license even though he wasn’t driving. Rose encourages the officer to let Chris be, and he eventually leaves the scene while advising her to fix her broken rearview mirror. But as the movie goes on, this turns out to be the least of their problems.

I should probably point out that Chris and Rose are an interracial couple, and Chris is concerned Rose’s parents have no idea her daughter is dating a black man. His nervousness is understandable, and it is elevated further when Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) try to make him feel welcome by telling him they would have voted President Barack Obama for a third time if it were possible. Basically, the Armitages are well-meaning white folks who support the fight against racism, but they have yet to understand the damage, however unintentional, they are doing to African-Americans.

Things get even weirder when Chris meets two other black people who work for the Armitages, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson). Both act very strangely and in a manner which threatens to redefine passive-aggressive, and the way they stare at Chris is unnerving as they look like snakes ready to strike at their pray without much notice. It doesn’t take long for Chris to realize something is terribly wrong, but his attempts to escape the Armitage household are not exactly successful.

There is a lot of racial tension burning right underneath the surface in “Get Out,” and this is on purpose. The movie plays on the stereotypes whites have of blacks and vice-versa. Everyone is trying to be polite, but you can sense what’s really going on by looking into the eyes of each character as they project darker intentions or sheer terror, and sometimes both. We are left in suspense as we constantly wonder what the Armitages truly have in store for the helpless Chris, and when their intentions are revealed, it makes a scary, and an oddly amusing, amount of sense.

“Get Out” marks the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, one-half of the famous comedy duo “Key & Peele,” who also wrote the screenplay. It’s a very strong debut as he takes satirical elements and places them into a story which ratchets up the intensity throughout and keeps it up to the end. But Peele doesn’t just give us a flat-out satire as he never set out to play everything just for laughs. He digs deep and touches at our own preconceptions of race in America and plays around with the unintentional ways we reveal ourselves to be more prejudice than we ever realized.

Daniel Kaluuya, whom you might remember from “Sicario” and “Kick-Ass 2,” is excellent as Chris, a young man caught up in a situation we hope he fully comprehends before it is too late. He also has good chemistry with Allison Williams to where you can’t doubt they are believable as a couple. “Get Out” also has the benefit of having two terrific actors playing Rose’s parents, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Both have a warm presence here which eventually turns into something more sinister before you even know it.

I especially have to single out Keener as she remains one of the most underrated actors working today, and the scene where she hypnotizes Chris is a huge reminder of that inescapable fact. She doesn’t have to do too much to get our attention, and as Missy, she seduces us to a place we didn’t plan on going to, and it’s a place where we fear we will never rise up from.

There’s also a terrific scene-stealing performance from Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ best friend, Rod Williams, a TSA agent who has seen it all. In any other movie, Rod would be the one to overact in the most annoying way possible, but Howery turns the character into a welcome form of comic-relief the movie needs to ease the at times unbearable tension, and he is hilarious.

In many ways, “Get Out” is a clever riff on movies of the past like “The Stepford Wives” which dealt with the unusual behavior of female residents in a little Connecticut town, and Peel takes risks with the material you wish other filmmakers would take on a more regular basis. What results is a motion picture which is not perfect, but still a very good one which will stay with and unsettle you in the way a good horror movie should. It also plays with the ways white people try to show how non-racist they are and yet fall into an inescapable pit of hypocrisy before they even know it.

And for the record, I’m a white guy and I would definitely have voted for Barrack Obama for a third term as President. Think what you will of that statement. I’m just going to leave it here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

I Saw The Light

I Saw the Light movie poster

Watching “I Saw the Light” reminded me of when I saw Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Both movies have a great cast, a lead actor who perfectly embodies an iconic singer, and scenes which vividly bring to life the classic songs of the artists. At the same time, both movies keep their main subjects, in this case country singer Hank Williams, at arm’s length to where we come out feeling like we never really got to know them. Considering the talent involved, this particular music biopic proves to be a major disappointment.

Writer and director Marc Abraham, whose previous film was “Flash of Genius,” eschews Hank’s childhood and goes straight to when he married Audrey Sheppard, a divorcee and single mother. They look like the perfect couple, and this is especially the case when you consider the palpable chemistry between stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. But like many biopics, we know everything is heading downhill for these two, and Hank’s life got cut short by alcoholism and a painful medical condition. He was only 29 years old when he died, but he looked much, much older.

The movie gets off to a wonderful start as we see Williams singing one of his most famous songs in a sequence which is beautifully lit by the brilliant cinematographer Dante Spinotti. We are instantly hooked as the country icon’s lyrics capture our attention right away, and it makes us look like we’re in for quite the biopic. Unfortunately, this proves to be its high point as nothing else ever measures up.

One of the big problems with “I Saw the Light” is it is so sloppily edited to where it’s hard to tell what part of Hank’s life we are looking at. It goes from one section of his life to another before we can ever fully digest what is going on. This makes the movie very confusing, and it keeps us from getting to know Hank and the other people in his life more intimately. I felt like I never really understood what fueled his music, and he became the kind of person who is not at all fun to hang out with.

Also, the movie feels undercooked to where Abraham has his cast of actors underplay every single scene they appear in. Nothing ever comes to life in the way it should, and everything in “I Saw the Light” eventually becomes an exercise in tedium. It’s bad enough we never get deeper into Hank’s psyche, but to see this story portrayed in such a passionless way makes this whole project come across as an unforgivably missed opportunity.

“I Saw the Light” does, however, have Hiddleston as Hank Williams, and his performance is in some respects amazing. We all know him for playing Loki in the “Thor” and “The Avengers” movies, and at first he seems like an odd choice to play the man who made “Lovesick Blues” such an unforgettable song. But he succeeds not only in mastering Hank’s accent, but in getting the audience to feel the songs as much as he does when he sings them. That’s right, Hiddleston does his own singing here, and this makes his work here all the more admirable.

I was also impressed with Olsen’s performance as she makes Audrey perhaps the only human being who could possibly deal with Hank’s alcoholism and womanizing. Watching her here makes one realize what a powerful actress she can be, and she brings this movie to life in a way others are unable to.

As for the supporting characters, they are given short shrift and serve little purpose other than to further Hank and Audrey’s exploits. Cherry Jones, a tremendous actress, is wasted here as Hank’s mother Lillie as she has almost nothing to do other than sneer at any woman who grabs her son’s immediate affection. Bradley Whitford makes a bit of an impact as Fred Rose, the man who helped Hank rise to stardom, but Fred’s contributions to Hank’s career are made to feel smaller than they were. Maddie Hasson fares better as Billie Jean, the young woman who eventually becomes Hank’s second wife, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of her here.

For what it’s worth, “I Saw the Light” did give me a good appreciation of Hank Williams’ songs. I have never been much of a country music fan, but the movie made me see why his music struck such a strong chord in so many people. Hank understood the pain of love in a way others didn’t want to experience firsthand, and it was not hard to connect with the feelings he so deeply expressed through music.

Still, the movie never digs deep enough into his life, and what results is a inescapably frustrating cinematic experience. This could have been one of the best biopics of recent years, but the filmmakers treat their main subject with kids’ gloves to where he feels like a complete stranger from start to finish. Coming out of “I Saw the Light,” I wanted to read more about Hank Williams on Wikipedia among other places on the internet as there’s got to be much more information on him there than what we got here.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* ½ out of * * * *