It’s beginning to look a lot like Summer. We have three much-hyped movies to go over. Wes Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel is starting to hit local theaters. It’s going up against Kermit and the return of the Muppets and the first part of Veronica Roth’s dystopian book series, Divergent. Let’s get cracking.
I feel bad for any movie that is promoted as “The Next Hunger Games.” However, Divergent’s marketers are to blame for that lofty statement. Also, the first Hunger Games movie was just okay. So, saying that a movie could be just as good as that is like saying that the new menu at Applebees is just as good as the one at Chilis. It wasn’t until the release of Catching Fire that we saw a new high bar that forthcoming book adaptations strive to hit.
For those of us who haven’t read the book, Divergent centers on protagonist Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley). At the beginning of the movie, she narrates that it’s been 100 years since “The Great War.” Based on the post-apocalyptic condition of Chicago in Divergent, I’m saying it was caused by the Autobot-Decepticon war from Transformers 3. Essentially, the U.S. is now a second-world country and society is divided into five distinct groups in order to run efficiently.
Don’t worry about the names of the five factions, you’ll only get confused. The only thing you need to grasp is the color of their shirts. The orange shirts are hippies who work in their organic vegetable fields. The white shirts are very honest and are apparently lawyers (?) That feels like an oxymoron, but I’ll go with it. The blue shirts are the super intellectuals and they like science. The grey shirts are the civil servants and they run the government. And last, are the black shirts. They are the police/soldier faction. Just imagine a Sunny D commercial where a bunch of bros are doing parkour and giving each other high-fives and you’ll see how cool these guys are.
Tris comes from a family of grey shirts, but she is drawn to the black shirts. When she takes her placement test, the results come back with a stunning conclusion….She doesn’t belong to any particular group, she is known as a Divergent. She keeps this fact hidden and chooses to join the black shirts. In this faction, she learns to conquer fear and finds out about a plot where Kate Winslet and her blue shirts want to take the government away from the grey shirts.
Have I lost you? That’s really the problem here. This seems overly complex and the movie takes its time to develop a world and corresponding movie trilogy but the story is actually quite simple. Tris disappoints her parents by choosing the wrong tribe, she trains for combat for 2 hours and uncovers Kate Winslet’s master plan.
Director Neil Burger is a very capable director and he doesn’t drop the ball here. He does a fine job adapting this very successful YA book. Fans of the series will appreciate the small details. He takes potentially ridiculous plots in the book and improves them so they seem nearly plausible. However, he is so faithful to the book that very little has been removed. Divergent clocks in at 2 hrs 23 min. It feels 40 minutes too long. A major cut would have helped the pacing and even wet the crowds’ appetite for more. Instead, you feel overstuffed from a humorless barrage of dystopia themes you’ve seen countless times elsewhere.
One of my main gripes with the dystopian element of Divergent is that it’s technically not a dystopian society. Sure, life seems hard in Divergent’s world because the world has gone to pot, but the nice faction is running the government. There is no Big Brother or distracting World State of Brave New World. Instead, it’s just a place where a few bullies run each faction and that’s about it.
The acting is the best part about Divergent. Woodley commits to the role. Winslet lends credibility to a role that makes no sense. Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn play Tris’s parents and should have been given more to do. Miles Teller shows up to ruin every scene with smugness. If this movie makes anyone a star, it will be Theo James, who plays Four (?) He will draw the female audiences in.
I don’t know if it’s the length or the lack of humor, but the presentation of Divergent felt lifeless. When characters died, there was no emotion behind it. Moments that were meant to be thrilling just felt forced. There was no lull or climax, it just felt slightly average at all times.
The choosing ceremony from Tinkerbell + India’s caste system + a 2 hour montage = Divergent
Despite the low Rotten Tomatoes score, Divergent is not an awful movie. It just aims low. I think it will break the current YA movie curse and get a sequel, but that may be where it stops. The hype behind it feels manufactured. Is it the next Hunger Games? It’s almost as good as the first Hunger Games, but it’s a low bar. I’d be happy if Insurgent reached the quality of Catching Fire. Though, from what I hear, this series takes a quick nosedive starting after book one.
Rent this at Redbox.
Muppets Most Wanted
This Muppets movie knows exactly what it is. In fact, they tell you very early on that you’re about to watch a sequel. As their opening song says, “We’re Doing a Sequel/That’s what we do in Hollywood/and everybody knows/the sequel’s never quite as good.”
It’s funny that they come right out and say that at the beginning. But you know what’s less funny, the movie itself. It’s hard to forgive a movie that knows it’s ‘less than,’ even if it boasts about it.
Muppets Most Wanted picks up immediately after the fanfare ending of the 2011 movie. The Muppets are left wondering where their journey should take them next. They are approached by a talent agent known as Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) He plans a European tour for the Muppets, but is secretly conspiring with Kermit’s evil doppelganger, Constantine. This evil frog manages to get Kermit thrown into a Siberian gulag, while he impersonates him during the European tour, all in a plan to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London.
Unlike the previous Muppets movie, neither Jason Segel nor Amy Adams are involved. The principal cast, besides the Muppets and Gervais focuses on two main characters. The Siberian prison warden is played by Tina Fey, who quickly takes up an unhealthy interest in her new well-mannered amphibian prisoner. Her Russian accent is dreadful, but therein lies part of the comedy. Ty Burrell plays a French Interpol Agent who is always one step behind the world’s most dangerous frog. His partnership with Sam the Eagle is the highlight of the movie. Together they bumble through investigations looking for the thief of several stolen artifacts.
Walter the Muppet is no longer the driving force of the story. It rightly goes back to Kermit and Constantine. There is even a great self-referential joke about the inclusion of Walter in the last movie overshadowing more-established Muppets. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes like that come out of nowhere and surprise you.
Sadly, a great deal of the near two hour running time is a bore. Muppets Most Wanted frequently hits screeching halts and it’s almost as if director James Bobin knows it, because after each dry scene, there is a lively musical number to salvage everything. There are far more songs in the sequel than the previous movie, and it feels like they’re trying to make the movie more fun than it is, based on music alone. Each song was written by Bret McKenzie once again, but they don’t sound as if he put his heart into them. You’ll forget the songs the second they’re over. There’s no standout track like “Man or Muppet” this time around.
You can’t have a Muppet movie without cameos, but they feel tacked on as little more than winks to the audience. These cameos range from Lady Gaga, Christoph Waltz, P Diddy and Zack Galifanakis. The two best cameos go to Celine Dion and Danny Trejo, who play themselves. The final song features every celebrity cameo in the most bizarre green screen effect I’ve seen lately.
Muppets Most Wanted borrows the charm of the 2011 movie, but only a fraction. It was great having Kermit as the lead, but the joke about the Muppets not knowing about Constantine being an imposter gets old quick. This cash-in sequel is extremely average and won’t require you to do more than smile at its inconsistent humor. Not worth a $10 movie ticket, but worth a rental.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
There are a handful of directors who have been making the same kind of movies for so long that they are now nothing more than caricatures of their former selves. Their work has become so expected that when they expand it further, it seems like nothing more than parody. Michael Bay, with his continuous lust for explosive blockbusters comes to mind. As does Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. This leads to director Wes Anderson, who started his career with the relatively normal Bottle Rocket and has since found his niche with unending quirk.
To explain The Grand Budapest Hotel, I need to explain how it gets to the actual story. When the movie starts, we see a girl hanging a hotel key on a grave with the bust of Tom Wilkinson. In hand, she is holding a copy of the deceased man’s book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cut to footage of Tom Wilkinson describing his visit to the formerly-famed hotel in his younger years (where he’s played by Jude Law). While at the hotel, he meets its owner, an older Indian man named Zero Moustafa. This man tells Law about the hotel during its glory years and the story jumps back another few decades, back when Zero was the new lobby boy working under the tutelage of consierge, M. Gustave. So we get a story, within a story, within a story. It’s creative/unnecessary moves like this that feel like Anderson is doing it because there’s an expectation for him to be “wacky.”
Once you get to the meat of the story, there are a handful of great characters. M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in a fantastic role) is a womanizing, anal-retentive consierge. The hotel’s reputation might as well be his, by the way he runs it. The central character we follow is young Zero (Tony Revolori), who serves as the anchor but has little to but to react to the mayhem surrounding him. When an old dowager (Tilda Swinton) dies and names Gustave as an heir, her children (led by Adrien Brody) frame Gustave for her murder. This leads Gustave and Zero on an adventure through 1930s Eastern Europe as they are pursued by the state police and a hitman.
Despite how it sounds, I don’t hate Anderson for his retro-pastel style. The issue with Budapest is in its story. The movie never stops to take a break. There are great comedic moments, but at the same time you can almost imagine Anderson patting himself on the back.
Budapest’s strength lies in the first third. Each character is given time to develop and the stilted dialogue feels refreshing. Once Gustave is sent to jail, you are hit with a barrage of throwaway characters and cameos that provide no benefit to the story. You really start to feel like the movie is forcing you to find humor in familiarity. Hey, it’s Harvey Keitel! You should laugh. Hey, it’s Bill Murray in one scene! Laugh again. Oh wait, it’s Owen Wilson! I think you get the picture. Just because this cast are Anderson staples, doesn’t mean their very existence should make the audience erupt in laughter.
Grand Budapest Hotel is a critics’ wet dream because of the attention to detail. It was filmed in several random aspect ratios. Also, its cleverness is meant to appeal to the moviegoer who feels important if they catch jokes that most audiences wouldn’t. It is high-brow mayhem that ends up being a casserole of useless cameos and poor storytelling.
I’m split on Anderson’s career. I love Rushmore and am a fan of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Life Aquatic. While there are redeeming moments of humor, I won’t watch Grand Budapest Hotel again.
Skip this one unless you’re a die-hard Wes Anderson fan. In that case, you’ll love it no matter how bizarre and poorly plotted it is.