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The Divergent series, aka “Adventures in Hardcore Lethargy,” continues with Insurgent, a film as boring and pointless as its predecessor.

Director Robert Schwentke chooses a lot of gray tones to go with dull dialogue and muddled, straining performances. Shailene Woodley, an actress who is impressive most of the time, simply doesn’t make an intriguing action heroine. The material seems beneath her.

After the oh-so rousing events of the first film, Tris (Woodley) and Four (Theo James) are living in a “faction-free” zone. In this film’s universe, everybody is categorized into a faction: Amity, Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Candor, Flounder and Douchebag. I would say this mess has the worst young-adult fiction premise ever, but I’ve seen the Twilight films, so I would be lying my ass off.

While living amongst the faction-less, Tris and Four have a surprise meeting with Four’s hot mom, Evelyn, played by the incomparable Naomi Watts, one of my all-time-favorite actresses. Watts is totally wasting her time in this crap, but if Kate Winslet can slum in this pigeon spooge, so can Watts. Watts’ appearance is fairly brief in this chapter, but her character figures to be bigger in future installments. In other words, I weep for Watts’ immediate film future.

Tris eventually winds up in the evil grasp of Jeanine (Winslet) again, and she is forced into a simulator that has the film trying to trick the audience into thinking things are really happening. So when Tris is being rescued, or kicking Winslet’s ass, or drinking a Diet Coke, it’s all just a hallucination. The movie spends much of its running time trying to dupe you. I assure you: If you’ve plunked down your green for this cat poo, you’ve already been duped.

One simulation has Tris trying to save her mommy (Ashley Judd, of The Identical and Dolphin Tale 2) from a broken, flying building. We are well aware this simulation isn’t real; after all, it involves a flying building. To say it lacks tension would be an understatement.

Are you noticing the talent I’ve mentioned so far? Woodley, Winslet, Watts (lots of “W” names)—and I haven’t even mentioned the great Miles Teller of Whiplash fame, or Ansel Elgort. Teller and Elgort have both had the privilege of starring with Woodley in much better movies: The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, respectively. I was hoping Teller and Elgort would get in a slap-fight over Woodley’s hand in marriage during their scenes together. It would’ve made no sense, but would’ve provided something resembling a pulse in this picture.

It’s hard to watch a talent like Woodley screech and moan her way through this dialogue. She follows in the footsteps of Kristen Stewart as a talented actress who sold out for a young-adult-fiction film series. Jennifer Lawrence has managed to make the equally ridiculous Hunger Games series watchable, but those movies also have Woody Harrelson in an awesome Kurt Cobain wig, so she has somewhat of an unfair advantage.

Taking a cue from the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games cash cows, the Divergent series will end by splitting the final novel in the book trilogy, Allegiant, into two films. This means we are only halfway through this cinematic hell ride.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I will not lie: Sometimes, I walk into a movie theater generally uninterested in what a movie might be offering, perhaps due to weak trailers or press that failed to generate excitement. I walked into The Fault in Our Stars feeling that way, fearing I was in for a sap-fest.

Boy, was I wrong.

Shailene Woodley is downright incredible as Hazel, a 16-year-old struggling with thyroid cancer. After being sent to a support group by her mother (Laura Dern … God, I love her), she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, who is so charming it’s almost disgusting), a basketball player who lost his leg to cancer—but he sure as hell hasn’t lost his lust for life. The two hit it off, and the result is the best teen romance since The Spectacular Now, which also starred Woodley.

The film handles its subject matter with enough grace for a thousand movies. When Gus, Hazel and her mom travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author (Willem Dafoe, who is on freaking fire), the resulting meeting stands as one of the best scenes of 2014.

Much praise goes to director Josh Boone for making a supremely entertaining film, and to author John Green, who wrote the 2012 novel on which the film is based. You could call this a tearjerker, but that seems a little insulting: There’s nothing manipulative about Boone’s direction, or the performances by Woodley, Elgort, Dern, Nat Wolff and the rest of the cast. They all won me over in a big way.

The Fault in Our Stars is playing at Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615).

Published in Reviews

How in the world did Divergent wind up such a dud?

It’s based on a blockbuster series of teen-targeted novels—and that often means box-office gold nowadays. It has a strong cast, including Kate Winslet, and both Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller of The Spectacular Now. It also has a semi-reliable director in Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist).

Yet the film that made it to the screen would be a great over-the-counter solution for insomniacs. Forget Nyquil or those prescriptions for sleeping pills: Divergent will put your ass to sleep.

Woodley stars as Beatrice, a member of a post-apocalyptic society in which people are divided up into factions: Abnegation (The Selfless), Erudite (The Intelligent), Amity (The island where Jaws was set … wait, no, I’m sorry, The Peaceful), Candor (The Honest) and Dauntless (The Brave).

Beatrice is set to become an adult, and part of becoming an adult is being tested for your faction, and then choosing which faction to join. She comes up as a Divergent—in other words, she can’t be classified into a faction—but she tells everybody she’s an Abnegate, like her mom and dad (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). She then chooses to join Dauntless instead, because she wants to run around and laugh and climb stuff. Of course, she will have some trouble when she’s found out for what she really is: Unclassifiable!

Winslet shows up as Jeanine, an Erudite with a mysterious whiff of evil. I imagine she’s the Darth Vader of this silly saga. Teller gets what feels like a tacked-on role as Peter, a member of Dauntless who gives Beatrice a hard time. It’s hard to watch these two very talented performers slumming in such stereotypical, unexciting parts.

Does the movie have sad, yearning, doe-eyed romance? You bet it does! Four (Theo James), a high-ranking member of Dauntless, sets his eyes upon Tris (that’s Beatrice; she changes her name to be cooler), and sparks fly. They can’t consummate things just yet, because this is a tween romance, and all tween romances need brooding. Still, they eventually find an excuse to show off their tattoos.

The whole enterprise is missing tension, humor, creativity, originality and focus. It’s a muddled affair that looks downright bad at times. On the plus side, one sequence—in which Tris rides a zip line between abandoned Chicago skyscrapers—actually had me interested. Unfortunately, that sequence is only a few minutes long.

The film lacks any real visual spark. It starts promisingly with a relatively cool flight over a decaying Chicago, but most of the movie involves drab tunnels, dull costuming and bad lighting.

This futuristic world, created by Veronica Roth in her novels, doesn’t feel distinctive. Still, maybe there’s some hope for the Divergent series. (Two more films are to come.) A new director is set to take over for Burger, although that director is the remarkably inconsistent Robert Schwentke, who directed Red, The Time Traveler’s Wife and the miserable R.I.P.D. Still, both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises got off to false starts before finding their footing. Heck, even Twilight almost got tolerable as it rolled along.

But for now, Divergent gets filed alongside the likes of last year’s The Host: It’s a wannabe tween franchise that lacks teeth, even though there is a good female star in the lead. I feel that Woodley can pull this one out of the fire and make it worthwhile in future installments. I also feel that I never want to see this flat first chapter again, unless I have a really bad cold and need something to knock me out.

Divergent is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Miles Teller delivers his breakout performance in The Spectacular Now as Sutter, a partying high school senior who everybody loves, but nobody takes seriously—until well-balanced Aimee (Shailene Woodley) comes along.

They start a complicated relationship that is ill-advised at both ends—although sometimes, that can be the best way to start a relationship. Teller is a marvel here, turning Sutter into something far from your average high school screw-up. Woodley, so good in The Descendants, is proving to be one of cinema’s great young actresses.

The film is one of the more unique and intelligent takes on growing up that you are likely to see. This is directed by James Ponsoldt, who about a year ago piloted Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears here as Sutter’s sister. Ponsoldt is officially a force to be reckoned with, having made two of the best films of the last two years.

Others in the cast include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom, and Kyle Chandler as his idiot dad. While he only has a couple of scenes, Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Sutter’s tolerant employer.

A plot synopsis of this film may make it seem ordinary—but it’s spectacular indeed.

Special Features: There are more than 20 minutes of deleted scenes, some of them quite good. One notable one includes Sutter giving a kid a ride home from a quickie mart and revealing some stuff about his alcoholism. You also get some short making-of featurettes and a commentary with the director.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Miles Teller delivers a breakout performance in The Spectacular Now as Sutter, a partying high school senior who everybody loves, but nobody takes seriously—until a well-balanced girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), comes along.

They start a complicated relationship that is ill-advised at both ends—but sometimes, that’s the best way to start a relationship.

Teller is a marvel here, turning Sutter into someone who’s much more than your average high school screw-up. Woodley, so good in The Descendants, is proving to be one of cinema’s great young actresses.

The film is a unique and intelligent take on growing up. This is directed by James Ponsoldt, who piloted last year’s terrific Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears here as Sutter’s sister. Ponsoldt is officially a force to be reckoned with, seeing as he’s now made two of the best films of the last two years.

Others in the cast include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom, and Kyle Chandler as his idiot dad. While he only has a couple of scenes, Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Sutter’s tolerant employer.

The plot synopsis of this film may make it seem ordinary—yet that’s not the case. It’s spectacular indeed.

The Spectacular Now is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews