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Entertaining "Divergent" delivers a dazzling dystopia (Blu-ray review)

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Divergent

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Divergent (2014)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet

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Based on the series by Veronica Roth, "Divergent” tells the story of Beatrice Prior (Woodley), a 16-year-old girl who has come of age in her dystopian society (a re-purposed version of Chicago) and is required to take an aptitude test that will determine the type of lifestyle she will adopt for the rest of her life. The city is divided into a handful of group - or "factions" - each embracing one of five particular values: selflessness, bravery, honesty, knowledge and peace-making. However, when her test results come back inconclusive, showing that Beatrice has equal mastery of several different personality types, she is labeled as “Divergent,” which makes her unpredictable and a potential threat to her community. At this point, she must either choose to remain with her parents and their selfless lifestyle or embrace one of the other four factions, leaving her family behind forever. Amidst the turmoil associated with this big decision, political drama has boiled to the surface of the community, reaching the proverbial breaking point and speeding recklessly toward a violent civil war. Beatrice, who adopts the new name "Tris" to go along with her new adult life, finds herself (as many protagonists do) smack-dab in the middle of the crisis, making new friends friends and dangerous enemies - cultural leader Jeanine Matthews (Winslet), in particular - along the way.

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The Breakdown:

Some potential moviegoers undoubtedly discounted "Divergent" right off the bat, drawing too many similarities to other dystopian fiction. While certain aspects of the film do parallel those in other "young adult" books and movies, "Divergent" brings a couple new ideas to the table. The movie focuses mainly around Tris and her personal growth and development and, while there is a hint of romance in the film, the plot never feels like it's wasting time developing any type of dramatic love triangle, which is nice. After the obligatory exposition is laid down in the first portion of the film, the remainder of the story hones in on action and the impending political crisis and the movie becomes quite entertaining, practically from start to finish.

The city of Chicago, as depicted in the film, is quite fascinating - a mix between present-day architecture, the war-torn remains of a military apocalypse and the optimism of a hopeful future. The CGI work used in the film captures real-life Chicago, removes any traces of modern life and adds in a smattering of out-of-place vegetation and industrial technology. The "Bringing Divergent to Life" bonus feature gives a more in-depth look at how the cityscape was combined with special effects to give "Divergent" a believable, realistic look - and it's really cool. Check it out if you have the time.

There is quite a bit of violence throughout, whether it be hand-to-hand combat, knife throwing or an underground military operation. It is of note that much of the action occurs by or against women and teenagers, so keep that in mind when watching with impressionable minds. One additional piece of criticism that needs to be made is that the fighting style the Dauntless kids use in their sparring matches is just plain wonky. The bonus features explain how the fighting style was developed and what its influences were, so, if that's what they're going for, good job. It just looks weird, though. Like, if anybody ever tried to fight the Salt Lake City DVD Examiner like that, he thinks he could beat the crud out of them. But, then again, what does he know?

Woodley is, essentially, the poor man's Jennifer Lawrence, in this case, but she's kind of a cutie with that little squeaky voice of hers and she does a great job carrying the bulk of the film in a way that does the first-person novel proud. Her struggle between love of family and inner self-discovery is as well-acted as it is intriguing.

Theo James straddles the fine line between stud and jerk as "Four," the intimidating-yet-likable leader of Dauntless, and Jai Courtney makes it very easy to hate his character, Eric - Four's detestable counterpart. Zoe Kravitz follows in her father's footsteps as a charismatic sidekick of sorts and Ashley Judd comes off strong as Tris' mother. Although Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller aren't the strongest of supporting characters, their weaker performances don't upstage the real stars of the show, Woodley and James. Overall, it's a good group of up-and-coming actors who will be welcome fixtures in the next three movies. (Yeah. They're following the "Harry Potter" model and splitting the third book into two movies. Yippee..)

"Divergent" is and will be a crucial building block in this particular movie franchise, so a lot of plot will be important to remember as these films roll on. Kate Winslet comes off a bit bland in her role as the primary antagonist, but she does make it very clear that this political conundrum is not to be taken lightly. The filmmakers also do a good job of portraying the storyline from the book in a way that is simple to understand, even for those who haven't read the novels.

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The Verdict:

In a world crammed full of post-apocalyptic literature and its accompanying film adaptations, "Divergent" is a different take on young-adult dystopias, to say the least. While most similar to the "Hunger Games" series, featuring a teenage girl in the leading role, Veronica Roth's faction-based blockbuster is just different enough to deserve attention. Fans of the paperback trilogy can rest at ease with the understanding that this movie actually follows the first book very closely. If you've read the book, you will be pleased with the story's transition to the big screen. On the other hand, those that haven't picked up the novels should give the movie a shot. This is the kind of movie that will get you excited about reading again. It's a fun, entertaining and has an interesting premise that will leave audiences wanting more. Thankfully, those who can't wait until March 2015 for the next movie can run along to the local bookstore or library and pick up books two and three at their earliest convenience. "Divergent" is worth the time to the average viewer to watch and surely one that fans of Roth's bestselling series owe themselves to buy early on.

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Similar movies: "The Hunger Games" (2012), "Ender's Game" (2013), "Twilight" (2008)

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Blu-ray bonus features:

- Audio in English, Spanish, English Descriptive Audio

- Subtitles in English, Spanish

- Optional audio commentary with director Neil Burger

- Optional audio commentary with producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick

- "Bringing Divergent to Life": A four-part behind-the-scenes featurette with insight from author Veronica Roth, director Neil Burger, producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney and other members of the cast and crew. Topics include character development, physical training and special effects, among others.

- "Faction Before Blood": Shailene Woodley and others discuss Tris' coming-of-age process and the faction system. Additionally, cast members speculate about which factions they could see themselves in in real life.

- Half a dozen deleted scenes, including several that center around Edward, who was largely left out of this film but will be a critical character in the sequels. One of the scenes is particularly disturbing. If you've read the book, you know which one it is. Spoiler: Let's just say... somebody stole a butter knife from the mess hall and Edward will be wearing an eye patch in the future.

- "Beating Heart" music video by Ellie Goulding

- Marketing gallery: Two theatrical trailers and a poster gallery for your viewing pleasure.

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Directed by: Neil Burger

Studio: Summit Entertainment

Running time: 139 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13 for "intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality," including violence by and against women.

Costars Zoe Kravitz, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Ashley Judd

Blu-ray release date: August 5, 2014

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