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SET in a dystopian future society, Divergent is about a plucky, resourceful female heroine up against sinister machinations contrived by the power elite.

Did I mention this film is adapted from a young adult best-seller?

The similarities between Divergent and The Hunger Games are sufficiently pronounced that this movie runs the risk of looking like an outright knock-off.

It is set in a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic Chicago, where human survivors have designed a way to make their society work. They divide the co-operative populace into five occupational categories in which each citizen is compelled to take their place: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Candour. Dauntless are protectors, Abnegation are the care-givers, Erudite are the troublesome smarties, Amity grows the food in the spirit of communal welfare. As for candour... I'm not really sure what those recklessly honest folk actually do. Are they critics?

At age 16, a citizen participates in a ceremony where they choose their faction. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), raised in the neo-Amish simplicity of Abnegation, joins the daring, physical Dauntless, to the consternation of her mother (Ashley Judd).

It turns out that Dauntless is a punishing faction in which novitiates learn to fight, use weapons and engage in reckless derring-do. But for Beatrice, now re-invented as "Tris," there are benefits, which mostly involve being in the smouldering presence of a ridiculously handsome instructor called "Four" (Theo James).

But even with that going for her, Tris is facing a couple of crises. During her initial testing, a tech (Maggie Q) informs Tris that her talents extend beyond one category. She is, in reality a Divergent.

Worse news: the balanced power structure is in transition, apparently due to the machinations of cold-blooded Erudite honcho Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). And that power structure would just as soon eliminate Divergents.

Going in, director Neil Burger has an advantage over the Hunger Games model. The Veronica Roth novel on which the movie is based has a science fiction foundation that's not only intriguing, it's rock-solid compared to Hunger Games' credibility-defying, scattershot approach to the genre.

This movie also suffers no deficit when it comes to a heroine. If Jennifer Lawrence succeeded in classing up the HG joint with her soulful, vital presence, Woodley delivers those qualities too. And she gets to do it without having to prop up a silly premise.

As a franchise, this film is destined to remain in the shadows of The Hunger Games, since it lacks much in the way of romantic intrigue and outlandish fashion. But at least in its writing, it's an improvement. Pardon my candour.

'Ö'Ö'Ö out of five

Need for Speed

THERE are relentless movies and relentlessly bad movies. Need for Speed, alas, falls into the latter category. Gearhead hero Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) suffers bruised pride at the hands of designated villain Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), the cad who stole his girl. Dino compounds the villainy by challenging Tobey to a potentially profitable race, causing an accident and ditching the scene of the crime to let Tobey take the fall.

Upon being released from jail, Tobey's journey -- and the movie's plot -- lifts from the 1971 movie Vanishing Point in its middle third. Tobey is intent on participating in an invitation-only west coast race run by a zillionaire entrepreneur called Monarch (Michael Keaton). So he has less than 48 hours to get to the West Coast from the East Coast. Along for the ride is a Brit babe named Julia (Imogen Poots), who represents the owner of the car Tobey will be driving, a souped-up Mustang of legendary ancestry.

When Brewster hears of Tobey's intentions, he basically puts a bounty on Tobey's head to prevent his participation while Monarch cheers him on over the radio airwaves, an embarrassingly white version of Cleavon Little's blind radio DJ Super Soul in Vanishing Point.

Because its admittedly impressive stunts were all achieved without use of CGI. Need for Speed strenuously lays claim to roots in the car movies of the '60s and '70s, but it's a futile gesture. Director Scott Waugh's ham-handed car caper is here to rake in a little of the gearhead cash the Fast and Furious franchise is making by the truckload. Hot cars going fast, good looking women, boo-hiss bad guys: shake well.

Aaron Paul, late of Breaking Bad, tries hard -- too hard -- to emulate Steve (Bullitt) McQueen's strong silent badass prototype but fails. When he wants to look tortured or even pissed off, he just looks like he's suffering the mother of all migraines. He was more likable as a meth dealer.

'Ö'Ö 1/2 stars out of five

Oculus (Special Edition)

THE great thing about science fiction and horror films is that thrilling sense that anything can happen.

That, of course, is also a problem with a lot of genre films. Given licence to defy the mundane strictures of the real world, genre stories can spin out of their narrative orbits.

Case in point: Oculus, a movie about an antique mirror that possesses those in its proximity.

It starts off well indeed. Kaylie (Karen Gillan) welcomes her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) back from an extended stay at a psychiatric facility after he was found culpable in the murder of his father years earlier.

Kaylie knows darn well that Tim was not responsible. In flashbacks, it is revealed that their dad Alan (Rory Cochrane) became slowly unhinged after installing the infamous "Lasser Glass" in his home office. Dad starts to take up residence in the den, even more than usual. In fact, he can be heard in whispered conversations with... who knows? Mom Marie (Katee Sackhoff), meanwhile, is no help as she rapidly descends into madness. The kids (nice performances by Annalisse Basso and Garrett Ryan) are trapped.

In the present, the enterprising Kaylie has engineered a way of documenting the mirror's evil, having researched its murderous history. She steals it from an auction brokerage house, installs it in the now-abandoned family home, and hangs cameras everywhere to capture the mirror's supernatural ability to destroy those in its path. (We are grateful the movie threatens to go "found-footage" on us, but does not go there. Thank you, director Mike Flanagan.)

The problem is the adult Tim no longer believes the mirror was the source of the evil that destroyed his family, following the psychiatrist's line that the insanity that afflicted the family was organic.

Tim holds onto that belief in the initial stages of his sister's weekend-long experiment. But just as sis's theory proves to be correct, the movie itself becomes unhinged, especially in its third act. The problem is the mirror has the ability to induce hallucinations. That means anything can happen. And everything does. The third act is as messy an unravelling of an otherwise scrupulously constructed plot as you'll ever see.

What went wrong? Here's a guess. The Blu-ray edition of Oculus features the original 33-minute short film upon which this feature was based.

Sometimes, short films should stay short films.

'Ö 1/2 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2014 C14

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