See This/Skip That: From a Feisty Divergent to an Unsexy Nymphomaniac
What to catch – and what to ditch – at the movies this weekend
The much buzzed-about film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s literary series, Divergent, hits theaters this weekend with a new bevy of tough women who kick butt.
And what’s not to love about the Muppets returning to the big screen? Check out our recommendations on what films are worth seeing and skipping this weekend.
Comparing Divergent to The Hunger Games is near irresistible, and understandably so, given that they both feature a feisty teen heroine battling to save her family in a dystopian future. Unfortunately for the newcomer, such comparisons are nearly ever in Katniss’s favor, with Panem delivering a stronger, more emotionally engaging narrative. That’s too bad, because Divergent makes a solid case for itself when it stops playing Games and charts its own course.
Fans of Roth’s novels will be thrilled to know that, barring a few moderate changes, this adaptation is dutifully faithful. The fearsomely talented Shailene Woodley stars as 16-year-old Beatrice Prior, who’s on the verge of having to decide the entire rest of her life. In a crumbling version of Chicago, society is divided into five factions, based on group character and function. The Priors are in Abnegation, the only faction self-effacing enough to be trusted to run the government. At her selection ceremony, though, Beatrice and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), stun everyone by defecting – he to the brainy Erudite faction, her to the warrior Dauntless. The irony is that Beatrice hides an even deeper secret: Her tests reveal her to be Divergent, part of a tiny, hunted minority who don’t fit in anywhere.
Once ensconced in the Dauntless barracks, an emboldened Beatrice rechristens herself “Tris,” gets a tattoo and begins attracting attention. Some of it comes from dangerous elements like jealous fellow initiate Peter (Woodley’s The Spectacular Now costar Miles Teller) and Dauntless leader Eric (Jai Courtney), but also from friendlier corners like straight-talking Christina (Zöe Kravitz) and her boyfriend, Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). And then there’s her instructor, Four (Theo James), who regards the impressively resilient Tris with a look unfamiliar to a young woman from a faction devoted to modesty: barely concealed lust.
If there’s one area in which Divergent outpaces The Hunger Games by a country mile, it’s chemistry. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of Katniss and Peeta and their deeper, more resonant connection, but Katniss’s dresses generate more heat on screen than Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson do. Woodley and James, on the other hand, crackle with a charged vibe, as she deftly explores the tentative thrill of first love, while he nails the role of the warier, more guarded older boyfriend. They have a smolder all their own, and one that (thank God) doesn’t need the third leg of a silly love triangle to make it interesting. Of course, all this panting is kept well within PG-13 bounds.
Unfortunately, Divergent also keeps the violence ratings-friendly, as director Neil Burger cuts away from gunshots, making a movie about the outbreak of war all but bloodless. That’s a mistake, as it dulls the impact of watching the Dauntless fighters – mostly children – become pawns in an escalating political conflict pitting the factions against each other. The whole point of these kinds of narratives, from The Hunger Games and Divergent to Ender’s Game, Harry Potter and Lord of the Flies, is that we’re meant to recoil at the horror of children engaging in adult battles. These films are supposed to make us take long, stark looks at ourselves. Divergent is more content to look away.
The rest of the film fares better, with its spare set design and fine turns from Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd as Tris’s parents (though I wish Kate Winslet had shown a bit more bite as Jeanine Matthews, the icy leader of Erudite). Still, fans of the book may balk that Tris’s friends get short shrift, dulling the impact of their story arcs as society breaks down and they’re forced into a war they did not start. There is good news, though, in that this franchise has two more chances to get it right. The sequel, Insurgent, is slated for next March, with Allegiant following in Spring 2016. So settle in – you’ll be hearing about this Dauntless young woman for awhile.
And See This – but Keep Your Expectations in Check
Muppets Most Wanted
Woe betide the critic who goes all Statler and Waldorf on our felt-and-feathered friends, but I have to prepare you for a slightly less muppetational experience than the last go around. This time, the Muppets are headed for a grand world tour, under the direction of their new tour manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). You will be astounded to learn that Badguy is a bad guy, and in cahoots with a master criminal named Constantine, a frog who bears a striking resemblance to Kermit. After a few wily moves to break out of a Siberian gulag, Constantine replaces Kermit on tour, duping most of the Muppets, who ve only known their frog friend for, oh, 40 years. (Um, ouch.)
Most Wanted‘s mistaken-identity gag and subsequent heist plot will vaguely remind older fans of The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Great Muppet Caper, making this latest film feel like a bit of a retread. And while the humans are terrific, from Gervais to Tina Fey as a guard at the Gulag, and Ty Burrell an Interpol agent investigating the heists with Sam the Eagle, the jokes aren t quite as snappy as they should be. Furthermore, if you re waiting for a tune as catchy as “Man or Muppet,” then Oscar winner Bret McKenzie s newest crop of ditties won t be quite the earworms you d hoped. But take the kids anyway – they can always use a refresher in the classics.
The cast is a veritable roster of international talent: Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Zöe Saldana, Lili Taylor and James Caan. But the slow-moving crime drama keeps its actors mired in a pot-boiler that never simmers. Brothers Frank (Crudup) and Chris (Owen) don t get along – not entirely because Frank is a cop and Chris is a con. Chris struggles to stay on the straight and narrow, while Frank rekindles a romance with an old flame (Saldana), after he puts her new man (Schoenaerts) behind bars. The plot maneuvers the actors around the chess board in moves that are intriguing in the aggregate, but painfully slow to unfold, finally mounting to a climax that would be satisfying if the film didn t still have 40 minutes to go. None of this is the actors fault, as they all make more of the material than should be expected – particularly the women, who are mostly relegated to sister or paramour roles. Blood Ties isn t a total letdown, but there s certainly no reason not to wait for cable.
And See This, If You re Cool with Lots of Not-So-Sexy Sex
Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Frank, occasionally funny and often befuddling, director Lars von Trier s Nymphomaniac: Volume I (Volume II debuts April 4), reveals the sexual awakening of Joe (played through the years by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg), a young woman consumed with sexual desire. What she lacks, though, is any compunction about her constant need for gratification.
The story unfolds one winter s night, when kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds Joe unconscious in the snow and takes her back to his monk s cell to recuperate. In exchange, she opens up, walking him through her budding sexuality in childhood, through an adolescence dotted with furtive, unfulfilling trysts, into an adulthood crammed with carnal encounters. (At one point, she sees up to 10 lovers a night, on rotation.)
Seligman, meanwhile, contributes asides of his own: mind-boggling ruminations on fly-fishing, polyphonic compositions and the Fibonacci Sequence, complete with onscreen diagrams. They re funny, provided one takes them as mental palate cleansers, helping the viewer from one sexual course to the next. And folks, let me tell ya, there are a LOT of courses. Take small bites.
Yes, Nymphomaniac is packed with sexual encounters, not all of which appear to be simulated. (Reportedly, porn actors genitals were superimposed on the mainstream actors bodies.) Appropriately, given Joe s mental state, most of these acts aren t arousing. They re by turns sad, liberating, cruel, and occasionally amusing, particularly one bold day when Joe and a friend take turns seducing the men on a train. But the film s funniest scene, in which Uma Thurman plays the wife of one of Joe s lovers – involves no sex at all, as she confronts the pair with her kids in tow. In an instant, though, that same scene becomes utterly devastating.
Von Trier’s trick is in bombarding us with images of lust, while making perfectly visible the suffering person underneath. The way Joe reacts to a loved one s death, for instance, would be revolting to most people. Given what we learn of her, it s also entirely understandable. Gainsbourg, too, proves quite the storyteller, as she draws us into Joe s narrative, wondering where, in the name of all that s holy, she s going to go next. It s a wonderful performance that rises above the giggles of its subject matter. For the record, yes, this is also the film in which Shia LaBeouf drops trou as Jer me, a man who steps in and out of Joe s life. But please, don t let that stop you. Volume I is a quirky, entrancing film nonetheless.