Four Stories and Seven Hours or So – Notes on a Quadruple Feature: "Divergent," "Muppets Most Wanted," "The Earth Wins," and "God’s Not Dead" Print
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 25 March 2014 14:01

Theo James and Shailene Woodley in DivergentMarch 24, 10:30 a.m.-ish: After several days spent visiting friends in Ohio – among them, now, my hosts’ adorable 17-month-old daughter – I return to my movie-reviewing duties filled with fresh perspective and hope for the future. Then I see Divergent, which earned $54.6 million over the weekend, and is already green-lit for two follow-up films. Well, the feeling was fun while it lasted.

It’s not that I hated this screen adaptation of Veronica Roth’s wildly popular YA novel, a movie (and, I presume, a book) so brazenly beholden to the themes, archetypes, and narrative tenets of The Hunger Games that Suzanne Collins should be listed as a creative consultant, or at least be sent a thank-you card and a really lavish gift basket. But after being initially wowed by the production design that creates a futuristic, post-war Chicago – a ramshackle gated community boasting a truly threatening gate – it only takes about three minutes for me to think, “Here we go again”; director Neil Burger’s teen-centric action thriller, the first in a trilogy, feels like a sequel even before it properly begins. Again, a society separated into distinct factions by smiley-faced governmental fascists, embodied here (very nicely) by Kate Winslet. Again, a spunky female teen (Shailene Woodley’s Tris) – our nation’s ultimate hope for survival – thrown headfirst into warrior training and feats of derring-do. Again, a hunky love interest with a furrowed brow (Theo James, quite good) ultimately shocked by the strength and persistence of, you know, a girl. The niceties of Divergent’s plotting may differ from The Hunger Games’, but neither the script nor Burger’s direction, with the hand-to-hand combat sequences especially uninspired, make the film feel like anything other than leftover goods, and only a handful of moments provide any real rush: a vertigo-inducing climb up a Ferris wheel; an exhilarated Tris zip-lining between two skyscrapers. And while plenty of capable performers show up – among them Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Mekhi Phifer, and Maggie Q – the only one who’s able to fully transcend the silliness and sameness is Miles Teller, who plays a preening, hissable bad-ass named Peter. The young actor appears to revel in his character’s comedic hatefulness, and seems to be having a blast hurling verbal and physical abuse at Woodley after spending so much time wooing her in last year’s indie romance The Spectacular Now. But what happens right as the movie hits its three-quarter mark and Peter seems primed to engage in some major-league douche-baggery? Teller is completely dropped from the movie with no reference to what happened to Peter or where he went. It’s like a trick performed by Penn & Teller.

Muppets Most Wanted12:45 p.m.-ish: Divergent’s overindulgent, 140-minute running length makes me think I’ll be late for the start of Muppets Most Wanted, but thankfully (or not), the comedy sequel is preceded by a seriously unfunny short film with the Monsters, Inc. characters, so I don’t miss a thing. And even if I had, I would’ve caught up with what I missed on an inevitable second viewing, because director James Bobin’s follow-up turns out to be a riot – not as charming or clever as The Muppets, but filled with so many hysterically random throwaway bits that I find myself frequently teary-eyed with laughter. In all honesty, I can’t fathom what little kids will make of it, considering that the filmmakers don’t seem all that interested in them – or, at any rate, in jokes that little kids might actually get. Speaking, however, as a lifelong Muppets fan in his mid-40s, Muppets Most Wanted is such a relentless onslaught of puns and zingers and pop-culture references that it’s utterly irresistible. The perfectly Muppet-y plot involves a series of crimes being perpetrated by Kermit the Frog’s Russian doppelgänger Constantine and the real Kermit’s imprisonment in a Russian Gulag, and I’m practically beside myself just listening to puppeteer Steve Whitmire’s high-comic nasal cadences, pronouncing “Muppets” as “Mappets” and calling Fozzie Bear “Fonzie.” (I even roar at the clever construction of Constantine, whose only deviations from the actual Kermit are the addition of a mole on his cheek and the horizontal-ization of the felt on his eyeballs.) And while Bobin’s staging is kind of blah and none of Oscar-winning composer Bret McKenzie’s songs will likely earn trophies this time around, the movie moves with terrific speed and confidence; you don’t sweat the bum gags, because five or six of them detonate for each one that thuds. Plus, and not for nothing, connoisseurs of bat-crap-insane celebrity cameos will have an absolute field day at this thing. The wonderfully playful, singing-and-kind-of-dancing Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, and Tina Fey get the lion’s share of attention, but there are – and I’m being conservative here – at least three dozen additional name actors whose appearances elicit happy gasps of surprise, whether it’s Christoph Waltz dancing a waltz, or Usher Raymond playing an usher, or just the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sights of Hugh Bonneville and Saoirse Ronan and Tom Hiddleston. Oh, and two of Kermit’s fellow prisoners are played by Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo, who, toward the end, perform in a Gulag-set talent show singing “God, I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line. I may have officially seen everything now.

The Earth Wins3 p.m.-ish: Through the grace of cooperative traffic lights, and with only some minor exceeding of the speed limits, I cross town to the Putnam Museum and make it in time for the new documentary The Earth Wins, whose opening title card asks whether we, as human beings, are fighting a losing battle with Mother Nature. The mournful-choir voices accompanying that title card suggest the answer is “Yeah, probably.” But then writer/director Jerry Grayson – in a film that employs no voice-over narration – takes that perfectly reasonable premise and proceeds to beat it into us with such unrelenting yet incoherently assembled high-mindedness that I found the experience nearly unbearable; The Earth Wins feels like a movie made by a stoned, humorless environmental activist with ADD. Glorious overhead shots of tribal dances lead to scenes of whales cavorting lead to horrific images of Hurricane Katrina devastation lead to more whales cavorting, and none of it is presented with any particular through-line or context; there just might be some young viewers, for instance, who could use some background information on the Black Saturday bushfires that decimated towns near Melbourne, Australia, in 2009. (Grayson shows the damage done but doesn’t supply even one title card explaining the damage’s source, or when the fires took place.) And as the movie progresses, with Grayson continually lobbing pithy bromides on the screen – “The earth knows no discrimination,” “Does the earth need man, or man need the earth?” – I begin to feel I’m not at a movie so much as the world’s grandest, most obnoxiously self-satisfied poetry slam, and one that doesn’t seem to realize just how offensive it oftentimes is. (When Grayson underscores his post-Katrina footage to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” just what is he trying to say? That we’ve now learned our lesson, and realize that cities built in the Gulf Coast region – cities built with minimal regard for Mother Nature’s potential – are bad ideas? That New Orleans got what it deserved?) I’ve enjoyed nearly all of the two-dozen or so edu-tainments I’ve thus far seen at the Putnam, but I find myself positively detesting The Earth Wins, a work so confused about whether it's a testament to nature’s beauty or a chiding of humanity’s hubris that it seems quite schizophrenic. During the Katrina segment, a rather snide title card provides the news that when President George W. Bush first showed up, all in-flight rescue helicopters were ordered to the ground to “ensure his safety and security,” and the unsupported condescension of this tidbit – with no subsequent mention made of how rescue efforts were or weren’t impeded by the visit – is so staggering that I feel my hands reflexively clenching into fists. When you find yourself feeling sympathetic toward George Bush, in the wake of Katrina, for God’s sake, something is most definitely amiss.

Willie and Korie Robertson4 p.m.-ish: As The Earth Wins, blessedly, only lasts 40 minutes, I easily make it back to Davenport’s cineplex for the last of my quadruple-feature obligations: director Harold Kronk’s inspirational Christian drama God’s Not Dead. I always not-so-secretly dread these releases – not because I’m not a person of faith, but because I continually feel like a heathen for not joining in my fellow audience members’ gentle laughter and tears as I trod through another badly acted, badly written, badly contrived meditation on faith that speaks to its base and leaves the rest of us feeling like uninvited hangers-on there merely to ruin the party. (This one comes with on-screen seals of approval by Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson, so my guard is up even quicker than usual.) I am, however, intrigued by this new film’s setup, which finds Kevin Sorbo’s loathsome, atheistic philosophy professor forcing a freshman (Shane Harper) to prove the validity of God in front of his university classmates: How, I wonder, is the poor kid ever going to do that? Unsurprisingly, he never really does, even though the movie would very much like us to believe he does. (Our heroic Christian teen basically wins his argument in a face-off against Sorbo that’s just like the climactic “You can’t handle the truth!!!” courtroom scene in A Few Good Men, which may help explain the casting of Harper, who could be Tom Cruise’s well-scrubbed, baby-faced nephew.) And, yes, presentation-wise, God’s Not Dead is frequently as amateurish as fellow offerings of the Courageous/The Ultimate Gift variety, with the lighting and sound mixing especially poor, and the compositions sometimes so awkwardly framed that you half-expect the boom mic to repeatedly conk performers on their noggins. But I will say this for the movie: It’s never boring. Even when you wince at some of their effects, most of the cast members attack their roles with a conviction that feels entirely sincere, and screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon at least offer some wit in their construction; with its numerous subplots and subsidiary characters, the movie is structured like Robert Altman's 1975 classic Nashville, but a Nashville in which Hal Phillip Walker’s political rally is replaced by a Newsboys concert. It’s too long, and even the most devout might find its pile-up of coincidences wearying. But God’s Not Dead is still a relatively easy sit, and despite his brutally clichéd role, Kevin Sorbo plays his bad guy with considerable flair and understatement. I do, though, have a mild gripe: You cast Sorbo and Dean Cain in the same movie, and then deprive us the fun of even one scene with Hercules facing off against Superman? Come on!

6:20 p.m.-ish: Back home. Dinner and Inside Llewyn Davis on DVD. ’Cause four movies in a row are clearly not enough. I realize I may have a problem.

 

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