Divergent

There are similarities: A grim vision of the future, young people facing off against each other, young people facing off against authority, unconsummated sexual tension and… cool costumes. As happens in another recent movie, a ceremony near the film’s beginning brings the citizenry together as it tears families apart.

But—–Divergent is not The Hunger Games and Shailene Woodley is not Jennifer Lawrence.

In a bombed-out futureworld Chicago, Tris Pryor (Woodley) faces a choice she must make: Which of five factions will she choose to join? The smart folks are Erudite, the peaceful people are Amity, those who cannot lie are Candor, the brave and daring are Dauntless and the selfless belong to Abnegation.

Tris does not fit neatly into any one of those categories, so she is destined to be Divergent (according to personality testing). However, when choosing time comes, she picks Dauntless.

Her training is brutal, but she makes it through with help from one of the team leaders, the hunky Four (Theo James). He realizes that she’s a bit brainy for Dauntless, but he makes it work. It’s not a spoiler to tip that they fall in love.

The Dauntless leaders get their crew involved in a political battle. Erudite, led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is looking to overthrow the government run by Abnegation, whose leaders include Tris’ parents.

Divergent establishes its characters and tells its story clearly. Its violence is direct but not gory. The effects are good but not overbearing. A favorite scene is a nighttime zipline ride from the top of the John Hancock building. Wheeeeee!

Shailene Woodley received an Oscar nomination for her work in The Descendants. She was good in last year’s The Spectacular Now. For Divergent, she has been handed the keys to a franchise. Her acting chops are strong. But can she command an action role? I say yes. (Her Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller is a fellow Dauntless trainee, FYI.)

Woodley may have the prettiest eyes in movies, but her look is not glam. She’s not a hardbody, but manages to pull off the athletic moves necessary to play Tris. (Not all of that work can be done by stunt doubles.)

The key to the success of Divergent will be, as with the Potter/Twilight/Hunger films, the passion of fans of the books. But for those of us who did not read the Divergent book, the movie is solidly entertaining. While it resolves its main plot issue, there will be more to come. The sequel Insurgent is due out in March 2015.

 

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Bad Words

Bad Words is one of those funny little movies that is definitely not for everyone. It has a ridiculous concept, an obnoxious lead character and a charming kid.

Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a 40-year-old proofreader with an encyclopedic knowledge of words. He finds a loophole in the rules and enters a spelling bee in Columbus, Ohio, which he wins. He moves on to the national finals where the story picks up steam.

On the plane ride to LA, Guy meets and immediately disses a young boy of Indian descent (Rohan Chand) who ignores the putdowns and maintains his upbeat attitude.

Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) runs the spelling bee. She is just as upset at Guy’s participation as are the parents of the kids in the bee. Dr. Bowman (the 82-year-old Philip Baker Hall) is the emeritus leader of the bee. He co-hosts the national telecast of the finals with Pete Fowler (Ben Falcone).

Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) is Guy’s sponsor and occasional lover. She has an online news outlet for which she is covering him and his wacky mission. She works to discover his reasons for crashing this party to which he is not welcome.

Other than his talent for spelling, Guy has no obvious redeeming social values. He is an absolute dick. He is rude to everyone: the kids, their parents, Jenny, the hotel staff, etc.

Eventually Guy becomes a friend to the young boy with the perky spirit. He takes him out for a night of totally inappropriate debauchery. Is sabotage his ulterior motive?

Bad Words delivers a few big laughs and several chuckles. Guy’s bad behavior, especially the terrible things he says to people, is often shockingly impolite. An actor less likeable than Jason Bateman would offend greatly. Guy is a total jerk but because it’s Bateman in the role, audiences are more likely to cut him a break.

Bad Words is Bateman’s competent debut as a director. The script is by rookie Andrew Dodge.

Viewers who appreciate its outrageous story and its mean-spirited humor have already championed this film. There are critic blurbs galore. But Bad Words is a movie with a central character who is hard to embrace and cheer for. That, for me, makes this movie hard to like. See Bad Words at your own risk.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

If the Marx Brothers were still making movies, they might’ve made The Grand Budapest Hotel. “Zany” is not a word I often use, but it’s the best word I know to describe TGBH.

Like the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set mainly in the 1930’s in a fictional country with an oddly named lead character. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) ruled Freedonia; Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) works in the imaginary European country Zubrowka.

Director and co-writer Wes Anderson has given us another movie with visual treats galore. This was suggested by the film’s preview trailer, which is better than many actual movies. Seeing TGBH in all its glory proves the product is as good as its tease.

The story is told via a triple flashback. A young girl opens the movie by reading a book about the hotel. Anderson cuts to the author (Tom Wilkinson) who flashes back a few decades to a time where his younger self (Jude Law) gets the lowdown from Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).  Moustafa recalls his early days as hotel lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and his adventures with hotel concierge Gustave.

When the hotel truly was grand, dowagers (older ladies with money/property) would visit the hotel where Gustave would service them sexually. Madame D (Tilda Swinton) was among his favorites.

Following her passing, Gustave and his lobby boy take a rail journey to the funeral where they manage to steal a valuable work of art (which was supposedly bequeathed to Gustave). This is followed by Gustave’s imprisonment, which leads to a daring breakout. Throw in a wonderful wintertime chase scene on skis and sleds and the ludicrous story becomes even more bizarre.

The film’s cast includes Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Willam DeFoe, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan and Jason Schwartzman. Of course, Bill Murray is there. Murray has become an Anderson “director’s trademark.”

In 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson seemed to have dialed down the quirk factor a notch or two. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s back up there. As he did with the young leads in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has cast an unknown in a pivotal role. The rookie Revolori does a more than decent job as the lobby boy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel may be too weird for those who prefer their comedy more direct. But if you are among the growing legion of Wes Anderson fans and/or you have a taste for something goofy, silly and, yes, zany, do not miss this movie! (Rated R.)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is just okay. It looks good. The voice actors are excellent. But the film isn’t clever. And, worse, it’s not particularly funny.

Maybe I expected more because Dreamworks animation has a strong track record (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, etc.) Maybe it’s because the recent The Lego Movie raised the bar for animated films.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is based on a segment from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Those bits on the TV show employed primitive animation, but they were well written. They dripped with silly, funny cleverness. And horrible puns. Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell of Modern Family) shares a few bad puns but they’re perfunctory.

Burrell’s voice work is spot on. (An early choice for this voice gig was Robert Downey Jr.) The child who voices Peabody’s adoptive boy Sherman (Max Charles) does a nice job, but often he sounds more like Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

The movie’s story has Sherman starting school and getting into a fight with classmate Penny (another Modern Family cast member, Ariel Winter). To resolve the issue, Peabody invites Penny and her parents (Steven Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for dinner.

When the kids are sent off to visit together, Sherman invites Penny to check out the WABAC machine. After Peabody hypnotizes the parents into a trance, he joins Sherman and Penny on trips back to the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, etc. They also drop in on Leonardo DaVinci. As mentioned, these segments look great, but their content fails to sizzle.

The film’s resolution has to do with the use of some voodoo physics to correct a time travel induced problem. Thankfully, these last few minutes of the movie manage to offer some of its funnier content.

A highlight of Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a sequence on Sherman set to John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy.”

For younger generations who may be less familiar with the TV version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the movie version may rock. But for me, a boomer who has watched them most of my life, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is okay. But it should’ve been better.