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Saturday, October 25, 2014

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Movies: 'Divergent,' 'Bad Words' & 'About Last Night'

Published 5:41 pm, Friday, March 28, 2014

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  • "Divergent" is the latest in a series of young-adult novels to be transformed into a big-budget movie. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News
    "Divergent" is the latest in a series of young-adult novels to be transformed into a big-budget movie. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:

"DIVERGENT"

According to psychologists, one of the most stressful aspects of adolescence is finding acceptance within a peer group. The need to belong has been the basis for popular young-adult fiction like "Twilight," "The Hunger Games," even the "Harry Potter" series.

In a futuristic, sci-fi world, 16-year-olds are divided into five distinctive factions, based on hallucinatory tests and simulations that determine their dominant personality trait. There's Dauntless for the brave, Abnegation for the selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest and Erudite for the intelligent. If you're not born into or choose to join any of these groups, or you've been expelled, you're abandoned to survive on your own in the mean streets.

Problem is: in postwar Chicago, Beatrice "Tris" Prior (Shailene Woodley), the daughter of an Abnegation official (Tony Goldwyn) and a nurturing mother (Ashley Judd), doesn't fit into just one category. According to her examiner (Maggie Q), she's a Divergent, and that's a secret she must guard with her life because the government is determined to eliminate all Divergents as threats to the organized social order.

Although Tris' twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) decides to join the Erudites on Choosing Day, Kris opts for the warrior Dauntless. While she's befriended by Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and mercilessly taunted by Peter (Miles Teller), her initiate instructor is Four (Theo James), who admires her grit. But Tris' most formidable adversary is Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), the ambitious, power-hungry leader of the Erudites.

Based on Veronica Roth's trilogy ("Divergent," "Insurgent," "Allegiant"), it's adapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor. Director Neil Burger is so burdened by the necessary exposition to ensure a future franchise that, despite the betrayals and surprises, a sense of excitement and urgency doesn't kick in until too late.

Having scored in "The Descendants" and "The Spectacular Now," charismatic Woodley proves a formidable heroine, demonstrating admirable athleticism in her ferociously fearless determination to forge her own identity.

Yet, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Divergent" is a disappointing 6, seeming a bit stale after other dystopian escapades.

"BAD WORDS"

Jason Bateman ("Identity Thief") makes his feature directorial debut and stars in this crude, rude, dark comedy about 40-year-old Guy Trilby, a proofreader with a photographic memory, who takes advantage of a technical loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee and declares his eligibility because he never completed eighth grade.

In the regional competitions, self-righteous parents are understandably angry when abrasive, yet verbally agile Trilby gleefully triumphs over their uber-bright adolescents, many of whom have been studying assiduously for years.

The furious tournament administrator, Dr. Deagan (Alison Janney), and its dignified director, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall), do everything within their power to disqualify him. Trilby's merciless victories catch the attention of dowdy Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), an online news reporter who is curious about his underlying motives. But, then, on an airplane en route to the finals in Los Angeles, Trilby is befriended by a polite, sweetly precocious contestant, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), whose father pressures him to win at all costs. Their clandestine evening excursions, which include shoplifting and vandalism, set to the music of the Beastie Boys, form the epitome of inappropriately disreputable fun.

Working from a screenplay by Andrew Dodge, Bateman obviously relishes his antihero's ferocious, foul-mouthed insults and mean-spirited intimidations. Both screenwriter and director credit the Oscar-nominated documentary "Spellbound" (2002) for inspiration and insight into the insular, arcane world of elite spelling bees -- with their elaborate protocols. And the words chosen to test the smartest competitors are among the most obscure, many almost unpronounceable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Bad Words" is a surprising, subtly subversive 7, the most misanthropic comedy since "Bad Santa."

"ABOUT LAST NIGHT"

The idea of the one-night stand that turns into long-term love has been done again and again, perhaps never better than Edward Zwick's 1986 hit, starring Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, which was based on David Mamet's 1974 play, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." But who can blame Sony for trying to repeat that success with contemporary African-American singles?

Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Danny (Michael Ealy) work at a restaurant supply company in downtown Los Angeles.

One evening in a bar, Bernie and his date Joan (Regina Hall) talk insecure Danny into hooking up with her roommate Debbie (Joy Bryant), a strait-laced executive.

Having been hurt in the past, both Danny and Debbie are wary of commitment, yet they wind up in bed. Soon, they're sharing a communal bath and moving in together. But when Danny decides to change careers and go to work at an Irish pub owned by his late father's best friend (Christopher McDonald), their relationship is seriously challenged.

Screenwriter Leslye Headland ("Bachelorette"), working off Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue's original script, and director Steve Pink ("Hot Tub Time Machine") offer little that's new and different, ditching all subtlety and reducing the structured calendar concept to a cliched sitcom. As a result, while the pace is fast, it lacks flow.

For example, there's that scene where Danny barges in on Joan and Bernie while they're having kooky sex. Wearing a chicken costume, she's clucking like she's laying an egg. The direction is so obvious that one expects a canned laugh track to be inserted at any moment. Then there's all that squabbling -- and who needs a montage of texting selfies?

Hall and Hart, who must be the busiest actor in Hollywood with "Grudge Match," "Ride Along" and this already under his belt in 2014, delineate such playfully bantering, outrageously vulgar supporting characters that they're far more interesting than the story's pivotal couple.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "About Last Night" is a broader, more serviceable 6, transitioning from risque to raunchy.