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New films: Divergent and three very funny comedies

Directed by Neil Burger

“Divergent” is the latest adaptation of a novel (of the same name) about a teenaged girl coping with life in a futuristic, dystopian society. And that’s also its biggest hurdle, that it’s one of several and bound to be both compared with the others and second-guessed as to whether or not the timing is ideal. In that sense, one has to wonder how this film would be received if it had come before “The Hunger Games,” “The Host,” the similarly targeted “Twilight” franchise, and even the more boy-oriented “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” series. Comparing and contrasting is fair game, but the film itself isn’t at fault merely because other similarly themed or targeted films have come before it unless it is nothing but derivative of those earlier projects.

The closest themed and targeted of all are “The Hunger Games” books and films, with both looking into ways in which societies have developed in order to control the general population in a futuristic America, approximately a century ahead. In this context alone, I think “Divergent” is the better story and far more logical and credible. “The Hunger Games” asks readers or viewers to believe that a successful approach to controlling the masses, for at least seven decades, has been to rip children away from families on an annual basis and have them slaughter each other as a reality TV event. That has always seemed to me to be a better way to agitate the population than subdue it.

In contrast, “Divergent” presents us with a futuristic Chicago, apparently operating as a city state, with an unknown, war torn world existing beyond “the wall.” Within the city, the population is divided into five “factions” based on personality and aptitude, with the idea that people are most content and stable when doing what they are best suited for. That’s certainly not a new idea – it goes back at least as far as “Plato’s Republic.”

Here we have “Erudite” (the thinkers and scientists), “Abnegation” (the selfless and charitable), “Dauntless” (the warriors and rule keepers), “Candor” (those who are honest to a fault), and “Amity” (the peaceful food producers, in touch with nature). Some of these distinctions are problematic, at least in the film, where for example the Candor group seems to exist largely to have a group with members who say things that are awkwardly blunt to those around them. It doesn’t seem like a defining characteristic to the point that one couldn’t be awkwardly honest and still be more closely defined in one of the other groups. And that’s a problem in a story that’s based entirely around the idea that some people might be “divergent” and belong equally well in more than one faction – a circumstance that threatens the established order.

In this sense it follows many young adult fiction themes of belonging and of the possibility of parting with family as one reaches adulthood. Does one go one’s own way or does one stay where one has always been? And it follows other common themes of feeling different and/or special in some way that sets one apart. It’s no coincidence that these recur throughout the genre.

But the factions have other apparent flaws, at least as depicted on screen. For example, the Dauntless group (with very few older adults visible, presumably due to reduced life expectancy) have a great habit of jumping on and off moving trains and other equally risky forms of getting around. It’s one thing to be the kind of person who is willing to jump off a train when necessary, it’s another thing entirely to be the kind of person who opts to jump on a routine and seemingly unnecessary basis. One is brave, the other is foolish – and it seems to be the former that is trying to be captured and not the latter.

The other minor annoyance is that the five names aren’t grammatically equivalent. It seems like the person or persons (either the author or her characters) who coined the names could have come up with a better set – Erudition and Dauntlessness would have fit better with the rest. But I’ll let that irritation go without further comment.

So we have a story that makes better fundamental sense than “The Hunger Games” but with flaws in the internal structure. “Divergent” holds up well in terms of its acting, especially among the secondary characters, but it’s probably fair to say that the central characters and the actors portraying them are somewhat less instantly charismatic on screen. And the timing here could be damaging simply because the prospective fanbase has already chosen other sides and teams with which to identify.

The earlier films have also been inconsistent. The two “Hunger Games” films, for example, were quite different with the story improving as the storytelling suffered. “Divergent” is also a better film, with a better told story and better acting, than the first “Twilight” episode, a film in a series that was notably inconsistent in its quality despite its more consistent audience appeal. Even the “Harry Potter” franchise got off to a shaky start before being re-imagined in the third of eight films. I’m not trying to make excuses for “Divergent” by making these comparisons, it’s probably the least structurally flawed of all of the starting points.

The problem “Divergent” has at this point is that it’s simply less attention grabbing and dynamic. A story that makes logical sense in our world isn’t a necessary strong selling point in a market dominated by vampires, werewolves, teenage killing arenas, boy wizards, Greek heroes, or the fantasy realms of hobbits, elves and dragons.

It’s also noteworthy that just as “Divergent” hits the big screen, “The 100” hits the small screen, with a story about another future planet Earth. And that show probably panders to “The Hunger Games” dynamic better than “Divergent” does, with 100 convicted teenagers sent to Earth from a failing space station as a test to see if the damaged planet is livable again. Based on the first episode alone, it’s like “Survivor” meets “Lord of the Flies” on a large enough scale that kids can die like red shirts on a “Star Trek” away team without the producers running out of warm bodies too quickly. There’s also adult in-fighting back on the station which has too many people to be sustainable and more moral conflicts than resources.

I enjoyed “Divergent” but I’m not the target demographic. It’s a story that doesn’t visually explode on the screen in quite the same way as some others, even if it (perhaps) thrives on the page. It isn’t garnering terribly positive early reviews but the numbers seem to reflect more borderline opinions than devastatingly awful ones. I may be in the minority on this one, but I’m looking forward to seeing more of what our divergent heroine gets up to.



In other movie news this week, there are three extremely funny and quite different releases, a couple of which have been slow in reaching the Sacramento market.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the latest Wes Anderson film (“Moonrise Kingdom,” The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Rushmore,” etc.) and in some ways feels like the least restrained. It’s also somewhat more frenetic and adult in tone than some of his other stories and hilarious throughout. Ralph Fiennes, normally so good as a dramatic actor, plays extraordinarily well against type in this crazy comedy about a dictatorial lothario hotel concierge who’s accused of murder in pre-war Europe. It’s a visually delightful and superbly acted story within a story within a story filled with about as many recognizable faces and cameos as this week’s “Muppets Most Wanted.” A must watch film for fans of Wes Anderson – including for the fact that many fans of Anderson seem to love to compare and rank his films. I just love watching them.

Which brings us to what might be, unexpectedly, this year’s best executed film so far: “Muppets Most Wanted.” And I mean that in the context of what it is and what it’s trying to be. The last Muppets film had to re-introduce the franchise to audiences and this one just takes off running, making fun of itself from the start. It’s funny, clever, self-referential, and likely to appeal to both kids and to their parents who grew up with the Muppets as a TV staple. Kermit ends up in a Siberian gulag when his lookalike, who just happens to be the world’s most wanted frog, uses the Muppets’ international tour as a front to steal Britain’s Crown Jewels. Along the way the star appearances and jokes are solid and the songs are so great that they’ll still competing for your attention and favor after the film has ended. Muppetational!

Jason Bateman’s big screen directorial debut is the wickedly funny “Bad Words,” about a man (Bateman) who exploits a loophole in the rules to enter a children’s spelling bee. He has his own reasons for being there that are unveiled slowly, although very predictably, but this movie isn’t driven by its plot. It’s a movie that’s funny because Bateman’s Guy Trilby is a man who has no filter on his vocabulary or communication, including to and around children. He’s in it to win it and the fact that the competitors around him are half his size and a quarter of his age is immaterial to him. But be aware that the running jokes are based on his (mostly verbal) inappropriateness around children and make your own judgment about whether or not you’re likely to enjoy it on those terms. I did, despite some inconsistency in pacing, especially when he’s not being such a jerk. It’s a film that manages to be based around a mean spirited character without actually feeling mean spirited and that’s a tough trick to pull off.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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