News Column

What to Watch: 'Divergent,' 'Finding Vivian Maier,' 'Hank and Asha'

August 5, 2014

By John Beifuss, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

Aug. 05--A nanny in Chicago, a filmmaker in Prague and a warrior in dystopia are among the stars of this week's What To Watch offerings.

"Finding Vivian Maier" (Not rated, 83 min.) Edited in large part by Memphis native Chris McKinley, this enthralling documentary has earned acclaim as one of the must-see movies of the year, largely because of the fascinating, mysterious life at its center. Maier, who died in 2009 at 83, was a Chicago nanny who shot tens of thousands of "street" photographs, which she stored in the increasingly unwieldy trunks she carted from house to house for decades. Her work was unknown until one of the trunks was purchased in auction in 2007 by real estate agent John Maloof (the film's credited co-director, with Charlie Siskel), who discovered evidence of not just a hobbyist but a gifted artist with a keen eye and an appreciation of all types of people (including herself: her self-portraits are unusual and distinctive). Since then, Maier has become something of a posthumous art-world celebrity, and this movie -- filled with wonderful examples of her art, alongside interview with her former employers and the now-grown children once in her charge -- is a testimony to the value of her work and the strangeness of human personality. The movie, which had a week's run at the Malco Studio on the Square in May and a June screening at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, was released by IFC Films/MPI Home Video last week on DVD and Amazon Instant.

"Hank and Asha" (Not rated, 72 min.) Would-be filmmakers who complain they don't have the money or resources to make a feature film may feel compelled to zip their lips after they view this extremely modest yet charming not-quite-love story for twentysomethings, constructed entirely from the "video letters" exchanged by Hank (Andrew Pastides), a gangly reality-show production assistant newly moved to New York from North Carolina, and Asha (Mahira Kakkar), an adorably chubby-cheeked and somewhat shy Indian woman attending film school in picturesque Prague. The post-millennium indie film equivalent of an epistolary short story, the movie is not just a video-letter conversation but a calling card for debuting writer-director James E. Duff and writer-producer Julia Morrison, who demonstrate crowd-pleasing instincts even on a micro-budget, as evidenced by the Audience Award for Best Narrative Film their movie picked up during its debut at the 2013 Slamdance festival. The story is pretty unbelievable even in its smallness -- Why would Asha initiate this long-distance relationship? Why would the couple, having established a bond, restrict their contact to videos? -- yet this isn't a problem, once you accept the conceit of the premise as more a symbolic than a literal representation of the gaps in communication that prevent two young people from making a meaningful connection. The movie may have been a dark horse candidate for success given its limited scope and cast, but it enjoyed a robust festival run and specialty-house run that included November screenings at the Indie Memphis Film Festival and a June screening at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; it's now available on DVD on the FilmRise lable, and is available for streaming via Hulu Plus.

"Divergent" (PG-13, 140 min.) Released to theaters in March and available as of this week on Lionsgate Home Entertainment DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes, Netflix and so on, this dystopian Young Adult would-be franchise-igniter is too busy warning us about the dangers of conformity to develop a distinctive personality of its own. Directed like traffic by Neil Burger, this adaptation of the first book in Veronica Roth's best-selling trilogy fails to connect logically or emotionally, squandering promising if unwieldy source material and a painstakingly established if unlikely premise with rote characterizations, dull production design and an indifferently staged action finale. A terrific actress hampered by an unconvincing script, Shailene Woodley is unable to make a Katniss Everdeen-esque impression as young Tris, a teenager who rejects her family's tradition of charity work to join the "Dauntless," the reckless "warrior" class of a future society in which order is maintained by segregating the citizenry into five "factions," each with its proscribed duties. ("If you don't fit into a category, they can't control you," a tester warns the "divergent" Tris.) More "Twilight" than "Hunger Games," the movie insults its protagonist and its audience by elevating Tris' flirty relationship with her hunky instructor (Theo James) to equal importance with her rebel-heroine destiny. Here's hoping the follow-up films are better; in the meantime, you've got "The Giver" (opens Aug. 15) and "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1" (Nov. 21) to satisfy your YA dystopian desires.


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