FRESH POUR: Divergent (2014) / Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

DivergentDivergent
Dir. Neil Burger
Lionsgate

In a dystopian future after a devastating war 100 years prior, society was rebuilt and reorganized by dividing people into distinct groups based on certain attributes, kept largely separate from one another. The state is run by an authoritarian government that stifles individualism and complexity. One day, a young, unconventionally-attractive-yet-lithe teenage girl from one of the poorer, more humble classes is thrust into a situation in which she must learn how to fight, form alliances, and fall in love with a dashing boy, all while using her newfound individualism to fight the system that oppresses them. A Kravitz plays a featured role.

Does this describe The Hunger Games or Divergent? The answer is, of course, both. Divergent, the latest in this long line of increasingly tiring YA book adaptations, is essentially Diet Hunger Games in more ways than I would have thought possible. While you can argue that many of these things are endemic to adventure stories, and young adult fiction in particular, the ways in which the film cribs both story and design from The Hunger Games and its respective influences is immense.

To specify the story a bit more, Divergent takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago in which people have implicitly lost the ability to have more than one character trait; the Factions are literally divided by what kind of person you are, whether it’s truthful, smart, brave, etc. When young people come of age, they must choose what faction they are, but it is still somehow determined by the outcome of this virtual-reality simulation test they must take, involving making choices in a number of dangerous situations. Tris finds out she, like, totally doesn’t fit into any of those labels, maan, because she’s a Divergent – some sort of genetic freak who actually has more than one aspect to her personality. Divergents are taboo, though, so she must hide her divergent-ness, making the choice to ally herself with the Dauntless, a band of soldiers/policemen who dress like Eurotrash clubbers and sure love to clamber on things. Meanwhile, Tris trains, she falls in love with a blandly handsome brooding guy named Four (Theo James) and has to thwart a plan by Hilary Clinton (Kate Winslet) to destroy her home faction.

Five minutes into the film, it becomes clear that this concept isn’t going to hold water on the screen as well as it theoretically might on paper. Sure, the whole thing is a metaphor for the high school experience, with the factions standing for the various ‘cliques’ that form in high school, that teenage uncertainty about who you are, etc. However, when the concept literalizes these ideas to this extent, it becomes flat and completely uninteresting. Add to that the weird subtext of the Erudite faction (the ones who are ‘smart’ – the nerds, basically) decide to take control of the jock Dauntless to pick on the shy kids (Tris’ home faction), and you get a strange view of high school politics that I personally can’t relate to.

On top of the ridiculousness of the concept, the ideas behind it are presented inconsistently. The idea of society strictly determining who you are is diluted by the fact that you are encouraged to defy that and pick a faction you want to be in during the Sorting HatChoosing Ceremony. Furthermore, the way the film’s climax is resolved by the protagonist doesn’t exactly gel with the idea that individualism and free will should be protected at all costs – she just gives Hilary Winslet a taste of her own mind-control medicine. To that end, the film’s messages end up muddled and half-considered.

The production design is all right, but nothing special – everything you see has been cribbed from Hunger Games*, but feels much cheaper. The pacing is slow, slow, slow, as we spend nearly two and  a half hours watching Tris train with the Dauntless and flirt with Four, before we speed toward the rushed climax full of contrived and undersold moments. Perhaps the most interesting scenes are Tris’s virtual-reality dream simulations; they’re filmed with a certain slickness and abstraction that elevates the film somewhat, even if they don’t amount to much in the end.

The cast is impressive but underutilized; Woodley carries the film well, even if she goes through the same steps every other female protagonist in these kinds of these has to deal with, but everyone else is given shit to do for the film’s runtime. Admittedly, though, it’s particularly hilarious to see her Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller show up as the school bully, only to be constantly humiliated at every turn. As fun as that is, it just makes me want to see The Spectacular Now again, as it’s a far superior film starring these two than Divergent could dream of being.

*I want to point out that yes, I know Hunger Games  is derivative of a number of things as well, but it really is Divergent’s closest clear inspiration.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Divergent Drinking Game:
1) Drink every time Tris (Shailene Woodley) sees her reflection
2) Drink whenever a character says the name of a faction (drink twice when they say Divergent)
3) Drink any time Miles Teller pops into a scene to say something needlessly douchey, then leave
Finish Your Drink When:
Tris says, “I think you may be overestimating my character.”

Muppets-Most-WantedMuppets Most Wanted
Dir. James Bobin
Walt Disney Pictures

Jason Segel’s 2011 Muppets film brought the Jim Henson creations of the 70s and 80s back into the spotlight, and it was a fine, charming film (if a bit hampered by the need to make it about the Muppets coming back, as well as Segel’s awkward, transparent self-inserting). Three years later, we have Muppets Most Wanted, a sequel that does right by the franchise by finally being a Muppet movie again.

The film admittedly feels a bit cheaper – A-listers Jason Segel and Amy Adams are replaced by TV stars Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell – but widens its scope and ambition but shoving the Muppets into an international crime caper. Directly following the events of the first film, Muppets Most Wanted sees the company being conned by Dominic Badguy (“it’s pronounced Badgee…it’s French”), played by Ricky Gervais, into going on a world tour that will permit him to steal his way to the Crown Jewels. This, of course, is all for his boss, villainous frog Konstantine (the spitting image of Kermit, but for a suspicious mole on his cheek), who frames Kermit and takes his place. As Kermit lingers in a Russian gulag under the thumb of Nadya (Tina Fey), Konstantin must deal with the Muppets and their suspicions while going on the world tour.

Muppets Most Wanted thankfully keeps up the same kind of zippy energy and self-referential humor that made the first run of films so charming; the film starts with “Sequel Song,” pointing out the reasons for its own existence while admitting it might not be as good as the first. They even make jabs at Walter’s continued existence in the Muppets, despite him just being Segel’s self-insert character. The celebrity cameos were also just as fun as always – I never expected Celine Dion to make me belly laugh in the year 2014, and Danny Trejo’s brilliant comic timing as a fictionalized gulag-prisoner version of himself is very welcome (“I’m a triple threat – I’m a singer, I’m a dancer, AND I’m a murderer!”). Bret Mackenzie returns from his Oscar-winning turn to do the songs here (and his Flight of the Conchords partner Jemaine Clement appears in the film), and they’re still fun, though they get a bit repetitive at times.

The changes in the dynamics of the Muppets are interesting; Miss Piggy’s and Kermit’s relationship develops quite a bit, as their back-and-forth about marriage continues and is threatened by Konstantine’s un-Kermitlike follow-through. Walter, oddly enough, takes center stage as the film’s other Muppet lead, while Kermit’s subplot in the gulag separates him from the Muppets for about 90% of the film’s runtime. However, since that gulag subplot is really fun (including getting to see Fey ham it up as a Russian taskmistress), I don’t mind.

All in all, Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t benefit as much from the self-reflexiveness of its predecessor, but it’s nice to see The Muppets back in fine form. While it stumbles on occasion, there are more than enough genuine laughs to make up for it.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Muppets Most Wanted Drinking Game:
1) Drink for celebrity cameos
2) Drink whenever you see maps or newspapers
3) Drink every time the previous film is mentioned by the characters
Finish Your Drink When:
Nadya (Tina Fey) says, “It’s terrible. You vill hate. You vill hate.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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