How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Starring- Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington

Director- Dean DeBlois

PG- adventure action and some mild rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9a4PvzlqoQ

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy sequel, albeit, in some ways, what you’d expect — inferior to its predecessor, with all of its best moments feeling like imitations of what worked the first time around. At the same time, its sometimes-courageous defiance of the ordinary tropes of modern sequels elevates it, despite its flaws, to a much-higher standing than a lot of the other franchise continuations in theaters this summer.

Five years after the events of the first film, all is well on the island of Berk. The Vikings and the dragons are now getting on swimmingly — every Viking now has a dragon friend of his or her very own, and they spend all of their free time playing games and racing across the island. Plus, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a hero to the community and one of the island’s most widely beloved inhabitants, to the point that his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), the chief, is now officially grooming him to be his successor.

Hiccup, however, is more interested in exploring. He spends his days with his dragon, Toothless, flying off into the sunset, searching for new places. On one expedition, he stumbles across an icy fortress that turns out to be a sanctuary for dragons of all kinds — one safeguarded by his long-missing mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett). He also discovers the reason for this safe haven — Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), an old foe of the Vikings who is building an army of dragons to aid him in his conquest of the world.

And once Drago hears of the dragon-masters of Berk, he makes that his next target.

I’ve come to expect a lot of things of sequels in this day and age. They follow the same basic formula so often that I began to accept it as the new normal. We get one movie that works really well, so we get a sequel, and that sequel mostly does the same thing — just insert a new conflict into the same old world and characters and engineer some fun spectacle around it, roll credits. Making those sequels is more a question of brainstorming ways to force another story out of the universe than in capitalizing on deliberate unresolved implications of the first film. Essentially, I don’t expect sequels to really continue the story in any way or to drive it in an interesting new direction.

So, How to Train Your Dragon 2 really is a breath of fresh air. It starts out like a movie that’s simply conjuring up excuses to put the old characters through a new adventure, but it turns into something that’s actually following up on the implications of the last movie and creating implications of its own that I imagine we’ll see dealt with in How to Train Your Dragon 3.

It manifests even in the small things — like How to Train Your Dragon 2 taking place five years after its predecessor. If you pay attention, most sequels don’t really specify exactly how much time has elapsed since the last movie. I figure it’s because that means they don’t really have to think about how the core relationships have changed over time or anything like that. Five years, though, that’s a significant absence for this franchise in particular. That means the characters were teenagers in the first movie, and they’re adults now. They have to be different. Their roles and responsibilities have to be different.

That means the movie can’t just repeat the first one’s character arcs. Hiccup can’t be a sullen teenage outsider trying to fit in. Now, he’s an adult, and he primarily needs to figure out what he wants out of his life — and that mainly means figuring out what it means to be a leader, now that his father is looking to confer that status upon him very soon.

And his relationship with girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) can’t be what it was in the first movie either. They’re not teenagers navigating awkward feelings anymore. They’re in a serious relationship, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 is talking about the potential of their marriage.

And fortunately, the film capitalizes in that in what it adds to the saga. This movie is not interested in maintaining the status quo; actually, in several ways, it shatters it completely. How to Train Your Dragon 3 simply cannot be the same movie that either of its predecessors were, because too much changes before the credits roll here.

I can’t understate how much all of this matters to the effectiveness of the story itself. When people and situations and communities are capable of change, that has the effect of making what happens in the story matter. It lends significance to the proceedings. Moreover, it makes things a touch unpredictable because you know that realistic consequences are a possible end result of any given action or experience.

Of course, that alone doesn’t do it. You also need characters you believe in, relationships you care about, and a story that knows how to tie those things into the larger part of what’s going on. And like the first movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, leaves you with very little to complain about on that front. I’d actually argue it improves on some of those things — my biggest complaint about the first movie, the modernity and obnoxious self-awareness of the comedic supporting characters, has been dialed down significantly this time around.

But it still can’t help but feel, occasionally, like a shadow of its former self. The freshness and surprise of the original — an animated film shot and lit like a live action film and capable of capturing the magic and intensity of flight in a way that some of the biggest spectacles of all time could not — is mostly gone. How to Train Your Dragon 2 goes out of its way on a number of occasions to recreate some of the highlights of the first movie — dreamlike, romantic flights; sequences of bombastic adventuring; some of the humor; etc. — and it all feels much more put-upon this time, less a natural consequence of the story and more something that was shoehorned into it.

Part of the problem, I think, is the apparent split between writer-director team Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Only the former has returned for this film. And honestly, I don’t think either of them has done anything alone that even comes close to what they made together. They seem to have been a team in the most important sense, in that they had different skillsets and covered for one another’s weaknesses. Based on their solo work, DeBlois seems to be the one who knows how to structure a story and bring a sense of import to it. He can engage the audience’s emotions. Sanders, on the other hand, seems to be the better world-builder, and also has a stronger comedic sensibility. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t as funny as the first one, which, admittedly, isn’t that big of a problem, since it mostly isn’t trying all that hard. But it’s also a faster film that spends less time with its characters and in its world and moves everyone from plot point to plot point much more hastily — enough so that it starts to become a problem. How to Train Your Dragon had me from the opening scene. How to Train Your Dragon 2 took until the really important things finally started happening.

And while I’m not quite sure which of the directors is more talented in this regard, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is much looser thematically than its predecessor. I’m not saying that either film tackles particularly complex themes — they’re kids’ movies, after all. The first movie had a simple but effective moral of finding unexpected qualities in the misfits and the outcasts, and of the importance of understanding someone before automatically making him or her your enemy. Those two concepts are closely related to begin with, but what really makes them work is the way everything the film does builds into those ideas. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is messier. There’s a bit about leadership and a bit about family and a smaller bit related to the first movie’s ideas, and it’s all over the place and sometimes seems more like a happy accident. The film’s numerous messages fight for screen-time rather than co-existing in a harmonious flow, and some of them don’t feel as though they’ve been meaningfully resolved by the time the movie ends.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like here — from the characters to the spot-on direction or the occasional riskiness of the story. There’s a boldness to the proceedings that’s lacking in far too many movies, and I’m pleased that DreamWorks Animation allowed that to happen. For once, I’m anticipating the third entry not because I’d feel okay about taking another, unrelated adventure with these characters but because I’m genuinely interested in what it does with the story’s changed circumstances and how it, in turn, develops them.

-Matt T.

Boyhood (2014)

Starring- Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins, Jenni Tooley, Zoe Graham

Director- Richard Linklater

R- language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0oX0xiwOv8

Boyhood: a movie to emotionally destroy late-end millennials. Like me.

I could discuss any one of a thousand things that Boyhood touches upon, some of which might not even be intentional on its part. I feel as though I need to see this a dozen more times before I can even begin to write about it in any kind of depth. But leaving the theater, the foremost thought in my mind was this: It all goes by so very, very fast. It doesn’t always seem that way in the moment, but when you look back on it, life starts to seem like a series of scenes and segues that passed before you realized it, and now, it’s just a concrete, unchangeable part of history. And this is your life right now, and it’s real, and twenty years from now, it’s going to feel the same. Where did that time go? How did I manage not to be conscious of it as it passed? At the end of Boyhood, two characters discuss whether we seize the moment or the moment seizes us and conclude, seemingly, that it’s a bit of both. Life is just this series of moments that, for good or ill, shape us.

God bless Richard Linklater. When you talk about movies on the Internet long enough, you get used to all the people who complain about how cinema is dead or, at the very least, a fading shadow of its former glory. There was a time in my life when I was that guy. But the longer I actually watch movies, the more difficult it is for me to understand the world those people inhabit. They surely haven’t heard about Richard Linklater, much less that he’s but one of many filmmakers constantly blazing new trails. He continually tests the limits of what’s possible in this medium.

With Boyhood, Linklater has distilled roughly one-fourth of the entire human experience into less than three hours and, in that time, created a full and complex human family, specific in its construction and infinitely relatable for precisely that reason. It’s a simple premise — we follow a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from young childhood to the start of college. There’s nothing too special or unusual about Mason or his family, but that’s the point. It’s cinema of the ordinary, and it finds absolute resplendence in the everyday. What it does with that simple premise is nothing short of extraordinary.

This film seems like the culmination of Linklater’s ongoing fascination with the effects of time on a narrative — both within the story itself and on the production. He’s interested not only in what it does for the story he’s telling and the characters who inhabit it, he’s interested in how that space affects his own perspective on the whole affair and what the actors bring to the table as time goes on. He made the (wonderful) Before trilogy, a series of relatively non-narrative films that followed one couple for no longer than a day at nine-year intervals — in-movie and real-world time.

Now, we’ve got Boyhood — filmed, piece by piece, over a period of twelve years, using the same actors.

As a film, it’s pure experimentation — to my knowledge, no one’s done this before, at least not with fictional productions and not in the same way, and Linklater could only have known so much about the eventual fruit of his labors. He would’ve gone into it knowing that twelve years is a long time — things could change wildly. A major cultural event could require him to readjust his entire vision. An important actor in the film could die. Since contracts of that length are illegal, someone could’ve decided to quit. Some of the younger actors’ skills might not have evolved with them as they grew older. The spectacular end result is half blind luck and half ridiculous contingency planning.

It’s my understanding that Linklater did not have a complete script when this production began — really, he didn’t have one until very near to the time that it wrapped. The film was shot on an annual basis, with all the actors coming together for a week or so to shoot the in-narrative events of that particular year. From what I’ve read, Linklater updated the script beforehand and adjusted it to the changing culture, as well as to what was happening in the lives of the young stars (while still, according to rumor, basing it on his own childhood). Given that, it’s difficult to attach any particular thesis to this movie, but that’s perfectly fine — I don’t think Linklater, with this type of film, is the sort of artist who really sets out to say something or to draw attention to a particular issue. He’s an observer of life who wants to recreate those experiences on film as vividly as possible. He is, in some ways, a cultural documentarian.

Really, Boyhood is best viewed as a series of short films, one for each of the twelve years represented. It’s not always clear where they begin or end or even what their significance is to the larger whole. It’s a series of moments, and if it has any point, it’s this — these moments, and the people who are involved in creating them, shape us. It tracks Mason’s development through all of these experiences.

Another filmmaker would succumb to the temptation to tell this story as broadly as possible. That’s why I’m glad this was Linklater’s idea. He knows that the more specific a situation is, the more relatable it becomes — you attach your own experiences to the commonalities you encounter and find, in the way the film attacks the details, that it’s not faking it. It really understands what it’s like to go through this or that. So, we watch Mason go through a lot of the staples, things a lot of us experienced at one time or another — moving to a new town, dealing with your parents’ divorce, trying to craft your own identity as a teenager, young love, starting college, looking toward the future with equal parts excitement and trepidation. But he’s not every kid, and his family’s not every family; they’re distinct in their experiences and in the way that they relate to each other. His mother (Patricia Arquette) has a self-destructive tendency in relationships that mostly deprives Mason of positive male role models growing up. His father (Ethan Hawke), who is already divorced from his mother when the film starts, is a bit of a pretentious layabout. You see the way these things affect Mason and, to some extent, model the young adult he becomes, scene by scene.

But while Boyhood is an intimate film, with a timeframe of twelve years, it can’t help but take on this all-encompassing scope. You watch Mason change with and respond to each and every experience he has, but you see the world changing around him as well. You see his mother try to pick up the pieces one bad relationship after another while also growing herself into a self-reliant career woman and genuine intellectual so that she can provide for her kids. You see his father slowly but surely try to get his act together and, belatedly, become an adult. You see the way the responsibility gap in the family, in a small way, drives his older sister (Lorelei Linklater) into early adulthood and then into a minor case of suspended adolescence.

Boyhood gets into some dark places, but there isn’t a nihilistic bone in its body. Even the bad things, properly contextualized, can work for the good. Mason has a lot of father figures in his life, men who, by some vague standard, are better and certainly more productive than his biological father. And yet, by the film’s end, most of what is good in Mason can be traced to his birth father. There’s an honesty to the way Hawke’s character presents himself, warts and all, and openly deals with his attempts to become a better person that shapes Mason much more than a thousand slaps in the back of the head from several of his well-to-do, authoritarian step-fathers. None of this is to say that Mason ends up perfect; this is, above all else, an honest film. You don’t have to dive too deeply into the message boards to find numerous threads complaining about how Teenage Mason is a pretentious, self-important navel-gazer and totally unlikable. I don’t think any of that is inaccurate. But I think, ultimately, Boyhood’s final assertion is that he’s going to be all right. Most of us grow up eventually. Mason is on the right track.

I suppose all of that could have been accomplished in one shoot, using different actors to represent the different age groups. But I think Boyhood brings something tremendous to the table in allowing the actors to grow with these characters and especially in having the film live entirely in the moment. In one interview, Linklater mentioned that during production, he was cognizant of the fact that he was making a period piece in real time. This, to me, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the finished film.

It comes wholly and without fail from the years in which it was produced. It’s one thing to recreate another decade — find the right wardrobe, make sure everything in the background is from the right technological era, try to keep your slang and other mannerisms straight, etc. But there’s always a personality that any given culture has, a certain quality that’s impossible to distill to formula and recreate exactly. Boyhood doesn’t have to try. At any given time, it’s working exclusively in the here and now, so it doesn’t have to be conscious of any of that. It’s simply a matter of capturing what is and saving it for later.

And those twelve years — it doesn’t feel that way, but they were so long, weren’t they? The film begins in 2002, with a touch of post-9/11 paranoia hanging over everything. It proceeds, and you hear talk of the Bush administration and what started to happen in the culture surrounding that. The music changes. The technology changes. It hits 2008 and reminds you of the political intensity of that year ­— how, culturally, there seemed to be change in the air, hanging over everything. There’s something so casual in the way that it presents itself, year after year. It takes you right back. I grew up in the decade that this was produced. I’m a handful of years older than Mason and, by extension, Ellar Coltrane. I lived in this world. Watching it happen on-screen is surreal. I watch Mason hanging out with his dad at the bowling alley and think, “At this time, I was getting ready to start middle school.” I watch him and his father messing with people’s McCain signs and realizing that I was just then stumbling terrified into college. Boyhood hit me in a way I don’t think any other film is ever going to. It’s the story of one child, Mason, but in it, you find your own — perhaps especially if you’re a product of his generation. I can’t speculate what would happen to those of you who aren’t. But I suspect your story is in there, too.

Great movies aren’t exactly commonplace, but I can expect in any given year to see several that qualify. On balance, I probably even see two or three outright masterpieces. To get that sense, though, that what you’re watching is something truly special, that’s rare.

So, you’d better not miss Boyhood before it goes. And you’d especially better not miss this moment while it’s here. And the next one.

-Matt T.

Non-Stop (2014)

Starring- Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Wigham, Anson Mount, Quinn McColgan, Corey Hawkins, Frank Deal

Director- Jaume Collet-Serra

PG-13- intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiHDJ19A3dk

The best part about Non-Stop is that its title is a lie — eventually, it does stop!

Oh, wait, wait, wait! I’ve got another one. Non-STOP? More like…Non-START!

*rimshot*

Seriously, I’ve got a million of these. By which I mean I’ve got exactly two of these, but I’ll bet I could think of, like, way more if I felt like it. But I don’t, and anyway, I probably shouldn’t be too glib. Non-Stop isn’t quite bad enough to deserve that. I mean, it’s still enough of a recognizable product that I don’t feel too bad about that. But, you know. There are way worse things.

Actually, Non-Stop has me in a situation that I didn’t think I’d manage to experience twice — it is exactly like 2012’s Jack Reacher. It is either actually kind of smart or way, way dumber than anyone thinks. And I don’t know how to decide which one it is. I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, our setup. Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is a troubled, alcoholic air marshal who gets assigned to what seems like an ordinary flight to London. But once he climbs aboard and settles down for the trip, he gets a series of mysterious text messages from an unknown source. The messages are all the same — until a ransom of millions of dollars is paid, someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes. And so begins a high-stakes game of cat and mouse at thousands of feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

I’ll get the mundane stuff out of the way first. Non-Stop is, generally speaking, not the sort of film that aspires to start a whole lot of dialogue. It’s a Liam Neeson thriller. It’s a plane thriller. You’ve seen both. They’re not all that different anyway, and they blend in pretty much the way you’d expect. Best-case scenario, this was only ever going to be competent mid-winter entertainment. And to its credit, it almost is. Sure, there’s next to nothing going on character-wise, the evil plan is overcomplicated, undercooked, and silly, and the plot is riddled with holes. But it’s heavy on the atmosphere, and director Jaume Collet-Serra is no slouch on the visuals (though his action sequences tend to descend into the usual frenetic chaos). And no matter how dumb the factual details of the situation are, the movie mostly does a good job of staying two steps ahead of you the entire time. It’s constantly playing with your trust levels regarding each character and never quite puts anyone on the “safe” list. I wouldn’t say that it’s engaging, but it’s not quite boring either.

Still, the last blockbuster I watched before sitting through Non-Stop was Guardians of the Galaxy, and that definitely highlighted some of the…let’s say, differences in approach. Guardians reminded me that action movies used to be fun and that we could easily start making them that way again. And while Non-Stop’s environment probably suits a somewhat more serious approach than Guardians’, I don’t think the two films are aspiring to terribly different intellectual heights or overall emotional purposes. I mean, Non-Stop doesn’t have to be Guardians, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t use more of a Die Hard template, is there?

Mostly, is there any reason for it to be this morose? Everything is steely blue or dank gray, and the film opens with our hero sitting in a car, staring pensively into the distance on a rainy day while drinking himself into oblivion. This movie is clearly just trying to be a good time, so I’m not sure why everything has to be so deadly serious. I’m not saying it has to be jokey or anything; I just think it’d benefit from a lighter touch.

But for the most part, the movie is what you’d expect it to be, and you probably already know whether or not you’re on board.

And that brings us to the tricky part.

Liam Neeson action movies have managed to become their own thing culturally. It’s almost a subgenre of action movie. They have similar structures, the same tone, Neeson plays a variant on the same guy in all of them. They’re like far more serious Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

They’re also, to me, one of the most concerning aspects of modern film culture. They have this tendency to be, you know…kinda brazenly immoral sometimes. They glorify violence, bullying, torture, revenge, and lots of other fun stuff. The fact that moviegoers have embraced these characters as heroes bothers me a little.

Non-Stop doesn’t offer many surprises on this front. Bill Marks exemplifies, and then exaggerates, the typical post-9/11 action hero. He runs into every situation guns blazing, he beats people senseless at the slightest provocation, he manhandles and humiliates suspects whose guilt has not been proven, and he’s like some overly determined hunting dog when it comes to evidence — somebody comes up with a tiny scrap that puts someone adjacent to potential wrongdoing, and he spends all of a minute playing connect the dots in his brain, decides that person is guilty forever, and then runs in like, “RAR! WHAT DO YOU KNOW! PUNCH! PUNCH! KICK!” There’s a scene in this movie where he completely turns on someone in all of thirty seconds because he was suspicious of the character’s seating choices. He’s kind of an idiot, actually.

Not too different from a lot of his other characters, really. But Non-Stop is a different movie. It’s like I said with Jack Reacher — it argues against itself so effectively that I actually started to wonder if it was secretly smart. At this point, it comes down to whether or not I want to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. And even then, the only answer I can find is: Maybe?

I mean, it’s hard not to notice that most of Marks’ problems are very self-inflicted. This was made clear in the trailers, so I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that part of the evil plan is to frame Marks for everything that happens. And he sure makes that easier by basically terrorizing everyone and being the big man with the gun all the time. He’s basically the film character version of everything controversial about post-9/11 government: He tortures, he arbitrarily assigns himself moral prominence over everyone else, there are absolutely no checks on his power, he happily throws down when someone so much as gets lippy with him (for basically stopping-and-frisking the passengers), etc. Of course, a lot of movies do that these days, and they don’t seem to arrive at a message happier than, “It was okay for him to do it because he’s a good person.

Non-Stop is halfway there and halfway not. The biggest thing it’s got going in its favor is the fact that Marks is mostly making things worse for himself. But on the negative end of things, it spends some time justifying things as well and doesn’t really present Marks in a substantially different context than similar characters in other films. Like I said, it’s still basically a goofy, dumb action thriller that relies on you having someone to root for.

Then again, I’ve seen people not only highlighting this theme but making a halfway sensible argument that the arc is actually complete. I’m going to part ways with them here. The ending is fairly typical airplane thriller fare. I wouldn’t say that Marks ever meaningfully confronts his actions or realizes their consequences. We just get our reveals and our final showdowns, and that’s about it.

For all I know, all of this stuff is in the movie purely by accident, and, well, that’s part of the problem. But while knowing that this was done intentionally would certainly increase my estimation of the filmmakers and even, to a lesser extent, the film itself, I don’t think it would quite rescue the whole ordeal from its flaws. It’s still a touch monotone and tired, and it’s still too grim about its silly house-of-cards plot.

-Matt T.

Movie Review: Rio 2 (2014)

Posted: August 14, 2014 in Movie Reviews

Rio 2 (2014)

Starring- Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Leslie Mann, Bruno Mars, Jemaine Clement, George Lopez, Jamie Foxx, will.i.am, Rachel Crow, Amandla Stenberg, Pierce Gagnon, Rodrigo Santoro, Jake T. Austin, Tracy Morgan, Bebel Gilberto, Andy Garcia, Kristin Chenoweth, Rita Moreno, Philip Lawrence, Miguel Ferrer

Director- Carlos Saldanha

G

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81ll2B4zl1g

   I’m not sure why I watched Rio 2. I didn’t even like the first one. It’s not like I was really looking forward to this or there was some critic or another who talked me into it. And it’s not like I was dreading this either. Morbid curiosity didn’t drive me into this.

   And I don’t even think I figured I was gong to write an interesting review of it. The first one was a generic kids’ movie; I was anticipating more or less the same thing out of this.

   I guess it made some money, so I just threw it in there and figured I’d give it a watch if nothing else was competing with it that week. I didn’t think all that hard about it.

   And yeah, it’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s a generic kids’ movie. It doesn’t actively offend on any level, nor does it go the extra mile in any respect. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s so lightweight that it threatens to evaporate before your eyes.

   Following the events of the first movie (and if you remember what those are at all, shame on you), blue macaws Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) are settled down in a wildlife sanctuary with three children when a discovery in the Amazon suggests that they aren’t, as previously thought, the last of their kind. So, despite city bird Blu’s objections, they fly off to the jungle, where they find a whole flock of blue macaws. However, an illegal logging enterprise is closing in on their home.

   Like I said, I don’t really know what to say about this. Generic, lightweight, forgettable, not terribly involved. It’s getting to the point where I feel that way about Blue Sky Animation in general. They started out with some promise, but lately, they’re stuck mainly on relentless Ice Age sequels and the occasional project that’s original in source but not in execution. I think of them to some degree as a poor man’s DreamWorks. They seem to be aiming for the same tone, but whereas DreamWorks at least to extent tries to inform culture, Blue Sky seems totally content with producing movies that are lockstep additions to whatever the zeitgeist happens to be at the moment.

   Rio 2 is basically here to provide the encyclopedia image under “Children’s Films in 2014.” Kids’ movies are still loud and manic but are slowly transitioning out of that, so Rio 2 is somewhere in the middle. For some reason, they all need to have a heavy modern sensibility, so there have to be references to hot new technology and things like that. So, one character has to be the “hip” one. And Blue Sky is still the foremost offender in ridiculous celebrity stunt casting — seriously, look it up, every single one of its movies has a bare minimum of one pop star who’s never done any real acting. This time around, it’s Bruno Mars.

   There really isn’t much of anything in Rio 2 that sets it apart from a thousand other movies. You’ve seen everything that happens in it before. This movie isn’t even trying to put a fresh twist on these old tropes; it just drops them in front of you half-heartedly. Everything plays out exactly how you’d expect — there’s even a scene where a bunch of birds play soccer that still somehow ends up being one of the most been-there-done-that moments in the film. The characters are all stereotypes who react to and behave around one another in exactly the way you’d expect, and their arcs bring each of them to the usual resolutions — most of them pretty arbitrary in the context of what we see anyway. The humor isn’t as bad as what I’ve seen in other movies, but it’s all really tired — “Oh, ha, ha! His GPS misunderstood what he said and is instead guiding him to something wacky!”

   The movie just seems to have a total lack of interest in itself. The story seems to have been assembled piecemeal from a couple of scenes the writers thought might be fun. The movie drops you right into things with almost no preamble whatsoever and then just does stuff. There’s no real rhyme or reason behind most of what happens. Scenes that seem like significant plot events regularly turn out to be little more than excuses for additional tangents. Generously speaking, over half the cast has no meaningful reason to be in the movie — most of them are here only because they were in the first one, and the lion’s share of the new ones are simply part of still more tangents. The movie has two different villains who are totally unconnected from one another, so you regularly forget about them outside of their scenes. The musical numbers are awkward and bringing very little new to the table. Plus, the scenes where the characters abruptly break into song are very strangely chosen — too many of them belong to minor characters or emotional beats and just seem like padding. The score itself is so light, fluffy, and devoid of identity that it actually starts to announce itself at certain points — it’s bad enough that it actively detracts from the moments it’s supposed to be propping up.

   The animation is still pretty nice. For some reason, Blue Sky’s characters still look low budget to me, but the environments are lush and colorful. And for all that it does wrong, at least Blu’s (generic, paint-by-numbers) arc has some definition.

   But Rio 2 doesn’t do a single thing you haven’t seen done a thousand times already. More frustratingly, it doesn’t seem as though it’s even trying to. It’s not an unpleasant watch, but it’s still a complete nothing of a motion picture that vanishes from your brain basically the second it’s over.

   -Matt T.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Starring- Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro

Director- James Gunn

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIaEzXgqto

Guardians of the Galaxy is some kind of masterpiece of idiot cinema. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a dumb action movie more open and confident in its awareness that its viewers are only there to watch some cool explosions and laugh themselves silly that subsequently delivers exactly that, and only that, with such gusto. It doesn’t try to be smart, it doesn’t bother itself with grit and realism, and it barely even tries to do that pesky “story” thing.

I kind of love it a lot.

Marvel’s kind of starting to frustrate me a little bit now — I want to keep complaining at it for being the driving force behind franchise mania, but no other studio is making as many movies that appeal directly to the squealing eight-year-old in me. And believe me, my inner child was totally mesmerized throughout the entirety of this stupid, stupid movie.

It opens with outlaw Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) — who calls himself Star Lord — stealing an artifact from a desolate planet with the intention of selling it. It turns out he’s not the only one who wants it — Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a vengeful Kree angry about his people’s peace treaty with the Nova Corps, is also after it.

So is Ronan’s traitorous former assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who tries to steal it from Quill only to find that he’s as persistent as he is full of himself. Then, bounty hunters Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) decide to take advantage of the chaos and collect the price on Quill’s head, leading to a fight that lands all four of them in prison.

They decide to put their differences aside and team up with fellow inmate Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in an escape attempt, after which all five reinvent themselves as the Guardians of the Galaxy — the only force standing between Ronan and intergalactic genocide.

And then there’s some explosions and some jokes, and that’s about all there is to it, really. You can’t accuse Guardians of the Galaxy of not knowing what it is. It knows it’s dumb — not in the sense that it’s constantly winking about it (though there’s a tiny bit of that, in acceptable moderation). There are dumb movies that are dumb and have absolutely no clue, and they’re pretty easy to identify. Guardians, though — Guardians knows it’s the new dumbest thing in the history of forever, and it just doesn’t care. So, it plays that totally straight and wears its dumbness like a badge of honor. It’s also one of the most brazenly weird movies I’ve seen in ages. I mean, you knew that already; two out of the five heroes are a talking raccoon and a sentient tree, respectively. And really, that’s just scraping the surface of this movie’s bottomless pit of weird. There’s something liberating about the way Guardians of the Galaxy just does whatever the heck it wants.

Storytelling is not, in this instance, something that particularly captures its fancy. Guardians of the Galaxy is action-heavy bordering on pervasive. This movie is 95 percent laser guns and space ships. The little dialogue bits between big, stupid action sequences only serve to get you from one place to the next and sometimes, barely, to establish something about the characters or the universe they inhabit.

Unsurprisingly, the pacing is a little on the fast side, and character development tends to happen in spurts. The climax just kind of gets thrown at you out of nowhere, and its stakes are high only in the numbers sense and not in terms of their personal connections to the characters.

And I’ll never say this again, but honestly — who cares? Guardians of the Galaxy is fun. Remember when movies used to be fun? We would go to the theater to see Indiana Jones jump around on top of moving vehicles, and it wouldn’t bother us that the villains never annihilated an entire city or that the heroes never sat down to wallow in personal-issues misery. We liked humor more than grit and fantasy more than stark realism.

And lest we forget, films like Raiders of the Lost Ark are not pieces of storytelling. They are extraordinarily well-mounted spectacles that specialize in getting you from one set piece to the next with efficiency and interest and successfully speckling the spaces in between with dashes of heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is, in a lot of ways, the Raiders of dumb pulp sci-fi. It gets you from Point A to Point B with a sense of fun, passion, and wild imagination. If anything, my complaints about the breakneck pacing have less to do with how it bogged down the experience and more with the fact that it left me wanting even more. This movie is over two hours long, but it feels like a brisk hour and fifteen.

And either way, Guardians of the Galaxy only ever needed to get two things right: character and chemistry. On those points, it delivers in a big way. Ladies and gentlemen, Marvel Comics just did the impossible: It elevated the Guardians of the Galaxy to potential A-list superheroes. These are wonderful characters who play off each other perfectly and who are each portrayed by the absolute best actor for the part.

Mostly, they’re hilarious. Guardians of the Galaxy is funnier than most of the outright comedies I see in a year. It even puts The Avengers to shame on this front. I don’t know that there’s a single bit in this movie that falls completely flat, and there are a lot of bits. Moreover, they’re character-driven bits that find humor in the commonplace interactions of this band of idiots and miscreants. The humor doesn’t come at the expense of your ability to take each individual scene seriously — well, as seriously as one takes as movie such as this.

It’s not surprising that Rocket and Groot are funny. They were marketed as the movie’s Those Two Guys. And anyway, they’re a raccoon and a tree. It’s also not surprising that Quill is funny. Chris Pratt is arguably the best thing about Parks & Recreation, a show funny enough that it’d still be funny if he wasn’t in it.

I think, approaching this movie, I was skeptical about Gamora and Drax. They seemed like characters I’d seen before. I figured Gamora for the hard-edged, quiet, assassin type, and I figured Drax for the dark, self-serious warrior guy. Gamora, unfortunately, does, to an extent, live up to expectations, though the script is kind enough to at least give her plenty to do within that context. She might not contribute much to the comedy, but she’s part of the reason it works — somebody’s got to be around to do the “surrounded by idiots” routine, after all.

Drax, though — and in a larger sense, Dave Bautista — was a genuine surprise. He is, by a comfortable mile, the funniest character in this movie. A lot of that’s the writing, and a lot of that’s Bautista’s pitch-perfect comedic performance — the kind of thing that, played right going forward, could easily make him the next Dwayne Johnson, a real breakout from professional wrestling into an acting career. In a lot of ways, Drax actually is the character you’d expect him to see — he is dark, brooding, and self-serious. But the movie plays all three of those things to the absolute extreme, so far over-the-top that they become the funniest things about him. Then, you throw in the fact that Drax speaks like a warrior poet, is totally incapable of understanding sarcasm and figures of speech, and is also kind of a moron, and you’ve got a recipe for comedy gold. Seriously, the guy is already one of my favorite fictional characters. Marvel could announce tomorrow that they were making a Drax the Destroyer spin-off movie, and my response would be, “That’s probably a very stupid idea, and where can I buy the tickets?”

Guardians is, at its heart, a team movie that needs to focus more on the dynamic between the characters than on any particular protagonist. And every single one of them fits perfectly into the personality of the crew: Quill’s overly self-confident idiocy, Gamora’s surly independence, Rocket’s grumbling sarcasm and innate meanness, Groot’s huggableness, and Drax’s…everything. You quickly get adjusted to the way these characters behave around one another, and the movie never takes a step with them that rings false.

And that’s the reason why Guardians, despite being an action movie with an extremely limited interest in anything else, works emotionally, to the extent that it needs to. The action sequences here aren’t terribly dark affairs, and the movie isn’t shooting for the tone of, say, The Lord of the Rings, which every other blockbuster seems to be doing these days. They’re never too long or too chaotic, and more importantly, director James Gunn is smart enough to ensure that the action reaffirms aspects of the characters and sometimes introduces new ones. Things are exploding gloriously, yes, but they are doing so in such a way that we’re seeing how each of these people approach problems and life in general.

This is how Guardians of the Galaxy — and this is kind of shocking — actually manages to be a thematically complete movie. Each of the Guardians is subtly damaged in one way or another — Quill is carrying around some guilt over the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death; Gamora is dealing with a troubled past that stripped her identity down and left her unsure of her place in the universe; Drax is driven exclusively by hatred and revenge, both of which cloud his judgment; Rocket feels like a freak and a monster and hates the way everyone condescends to him all the time; and Groot…well, okay, Groot is just a big lug with the mind of a small child, but even he’s important in the sense that Rocket clings to him. He’s the only friend Rocket has who’s incapable of seeing him as inferior. The movie mainly hints at these things and doesn’t waste time pontificating or overburdening the plot with misery. But it gives you a real sense of the space that the Guardians end up filling for each other. You could argue that the ultimate point of Guardians is that all these messed-up criminal sorts really need is a friend. And yes — that is simple and dumb and cheesy, and I think the movie even realizes that. It treats the whole thing with enough sincerity to make its characters’ growing connection actually a bit touching, but it also slyly acknowledges the childishness of the whole ordeal — the scene where Drax discovers the Magical Healing Power of Friendship is probably my favorite bit in the whole movie. (“This dumb tree, it is my friend.”)

Huh. It’s almost like Guardians of the Galaxy is secretly kind of intelligent. Very secretly. Like, buried way down. Way beneath the machine-gun-wielding raccoon and Benicio del Toro dressed like a member of a funk band with a sci-fi twist. And only intelligent in the way that it delivers its totally brainless goods. But it is there. And there’s something of a beating heart buried right next to it.

Guardians of the Galaxy is an absolute blast. Awesomely stupid pop sci-fi is back, people. Rejoice.

-Matt T.

The Immigrant (2014)

Starring- Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Elene Solvey, Maja Wampuszyc, Ilia Volok, Angela Sarafyan

Director- James Gray

R- sexual content, nudity and some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeXtjrHLbTc

I’m getting to where I can’t tell the difference between movies that get wider releases and are eligible for awards consideration and the ones that end up in the “obscure indie” pile and don’t get talked about much.

I mean, there isn’t anything in particular about The Immigrant that strikes me as being “inaccessible” — not that it’s light, easy drama ready-made for mainstream blockbuster status, just that it’s not this strange, abstract thing that buries itself between layers of symbolism and indiscernible implication.

But no matter. It exists, and for those of us who think it’s great — and I may count myself among that number — is anything else important? It’s here, we can see it, and we can enjoy it. It seems almost every review of The Immigrant spends half its length fussing about how the Academy will forget about it come awards season or what a shame it is that dumb spectacle makes so much money or whatever. But shouldn’t our objective, as its defenders, be to persuade more people to see The Immigrant? And why do so many of us seem convinced that the way to do that is to be as snobbish and insufferable about it as possible? Instead of focusing on the ways The Immigrant’s cultural context angered us, why not instead focus on sharing the worth that it added to our lives?

So, in my own meager way, that’s what I’m going to try to do.

Here’s why you should see The Immigrant:

• Because it’s extremely solid storytelling. Really, this is true of every aspect of The Immigrant — it’s extremely solid. There’s no real reinventing of the wheel here; it’s just a movie telling a good story with good characters and good visual construction, taking a simple concept and showing everyone how you make something wonderful out of it. Set in the early 20th Century, The Immigrant follows Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish woman arriving in America with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), both of them fleeing the war. But upon arrival, Magda is quarantined under suspicion of lung disease, and Ewa is marked for deportation. While in line to be sent back, Ewa meets Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), an American citizen, who comes across as kindly and concerned for her and who pulls a few strings to get her into the country. However, he soon afterward proves to be manipulative and abusive, strong-arming Ewa into laboring for him as a dancing girl and prostitute. It’s a story grounded in a lot of identifiable and defined wants and needs, one in which the events proceed out of one another and the conflicts are almost predictable — in a positive way — because of the extent to which we know who these people are and how the desires they’re chasing are going to rub against one another.

Ewa is shy, reserved, and not terribly assertive; she’s also totally out of her depth in an unfamiliar land. She has no desire for Bruno’s line of work, but he knows how to push her buttons, and moreover, he knows how to limit her options. She has a sister in the hospital, and it’s going to take money both to care for her and to buy her way into citizenship once she’s healthy. That’s an immediate need, and Ewa does not see the choice as being her own. Bruno, of course, is a businessman and entertainer, and a spectacularly shady one, but also stunningly complicated in what he wants for his life — more on this in a moment. A third party enters the picture later — Emil, a.k.a. Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), a Bruno’s cousin with whom he has a heated rivalry. Ewa quickly becomes the centerpiece of a twisted interpersonal conflict.

• Because the characters are wonderful, and the performances are pitch-perfect. Marion Cotillard is, as ever, a radiant screen presence, here playing someone determined and bursting with hope for the future but also damaged by the numerous tragedies of her past and trapped by circumstance, forced to lay her dignity down on the altar of her survival. Despite this, she might be the least complicated character in the film. Nevertheless, Cotillard imbues Ewa with grace, innocence, and heart-wrenching fragility and makes a magnetic presence out of her.

Jeremy Renner gets the least screen-time of the three and carries the least weight in the story, but he’s nevertheless fascinating and immediately endearing — despite the fact that there’s something about Emil that doesn’t seem quite right. It’s not quite the usual Jeremy Renner role; he’s built his career on stoic heroes and shifty villains. Perhaps it’s his craggy, knife-edged features. Emil, though, is in some ways the film’s center of moral decency. He’s by no means a perfect man, but it’s difficult not to get swept away in his charm and warmth. We see little that is in direct conflict with this, but the film carefully implies something far deeper than what is shown on-screen. Knowing what we know of his falling out with Bruno, and seeing how his relationship with Ewa grows, I wonder how self-aware Emil truly is. Is he moved by compassion and love, or is Ewa yet another act of petty jealousy predicated on moral outrage. Is she just a piece in his ongoing fight with Bruno? And if she is, does he even fully realize that?

It’s Joaquin Phoenix, of course, who steals the show. He’s well on his way to becoming one of my favorite actors, if indeed he isn’t there already. He’s that rare actor you could truly call an artist; he’s as involved in the creation of his characters as the writers. He’s a performer who understands that believably inhabiting the skin of another person is not found in scenes of big, bombastic emotion — anger manifesting itself as barely contained shouting, sadness manifesting as relentless sobbing and tears streaming in rivers. Human nature is subtler than that, and Phoenix brings so much detail to the table — tiny mannerisms and physical quirks that suggest a complete person with his own history, bits of quiet emotion that let us know what’s going on in his head without letting what’s going on in his head out. He brings all of that to the stage in The Immigrant. I don’t think it’s his best performance, but it certainly must be one of his most complex characters.

Bruno is a terrible person. I need not elaborate on that overmuch. He preys on desperate immigrants to feed his pockets by selling their bodies and their humanity on the streets. He’s an abusive manipulator, putting on his best face and pretending compassion for his girls’ circumstances — “I only want to help you” is a near-constant refrain — but breaking them when they don’t live up to his expectations, or if he sees that as being the way to destroy whatever will they have left.

Any other movie would let that be the long and short of it, but The Immigrant gives Bruno space to be a human being, and even hints at the possibility of his redemption. This comes mainly through his relationship with Ewa, which could not, even through conscious effort, be any more twisted. She is at once his favorite girl, his prize moneymaker, and also something more than that. He is conscious of her personhood in a way that he isn’t with the other women, which is both why he is drawn to her and why he treats her so much worse. His desires become something more, and it gets to where Bruno is using the offer of help for Ewa and her sister both to manipulate her and because he halfway means it. And his own ability to discern between the charade and his actual feelings seems to vary by the day. He needs her, which is why he must manipulate her and keep her in place. But in a strange way, he cares about her, and that’s why he can’t. Eventually, something has to give.

• Because it’s a masterwork of physical construction. It feels strange, coming so closely (for me) on the heels of Winter’s Tale, to praise a movie that is also heavy on the brown. Then again, the environment can change so much about how one perceives the color. The Immigrant is set in musty bars and a creaky old house, and the dust-brown palette grounds that. In the rooms on Ellis Island, the brown turns sicklier, like a desert wasteland. When the film comes across safer environments, the brown turns a warm amber; you can sense the light playing at the edges of the frame. Of course, the cinematography, both beautifully framed and conscious of the meaning in the imagery, is resplendent as well.

• Because it’s available for streaming on Netflix, so you don’t really have an excuse.

Of course, as usual, honesty compels me to draw attention to The Immigrant’s imperfections. For all the strength in its characters, there are elements of their individual arcs that didn’t ring true to me — for example, how quickly and how easily Ewa consents to Bruno’s requests, even before scraping for other opportunities. In other cases, it’s that while, based on what is shown to us in the film, I can conjure up largely workable explanations for what causes change in certain of these characters, these are not always particularly well-defined in the film itself. That is to say, the changes in the characters over time make sense on an intellectual level but aren’t always completely resonant.

Nevertheless, whether it’s forgotten or no one sees it, The Immigrant got made, it’s here, and for those who find it and approach it in the right frame of mind, that’s all that matters.

-Matt T.

Divergent (2014)

Starring- Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet, Ben Lloyd-Hughes

Director- Neil Burger

PG-13- intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sutgWjz10sM

I’ve got to be honest here — I went into Divergent almost certain that I wasn’t going to like it all that much. True, it’s not the first time I’ve done that. It’s not like I go into Michael Bay movies thinking there’s much chance I’m going to have a good time. But that has nothing to do with the movies themselves and everything to do with the people making them. There’s nothing inherent in, say, Transformers that makes quality filmmaking impossible.

And that’s the problem with Divergent. My low expectations were not the result of any particular bias I have against the people involved. They were low solely because this movie’s premise is, in my mind, almost totally unworkable within any context.

It’s more dystopian, post-apocalyptic teen lit (for my money, one of the most weirdly specific pop culture trends to ever reach this level of ubiquity). This time, it’s in the ruins of Chicago, where a new nation has arisen. The nation is divided into five factions, into which people are placed based on their personalities: Abnegation, the governing body, where everyone is completely selfless all the time; Amity, the farmers and gardeners, who are peaceful and kind and not at all explicitly designed after stereotypical hippies; Candor, the judicial body, where everyone is honest to a fault; Dauntless, the soldiers, where everyone is brave and daring; and Erudite, where everyone is intelligent. When children come of age, they submit to a personality test that suggests where they should go; afterward, they are allowed to choose their faction. The choice is permanent.

Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) lives in Abnegation, where she is the daughter of an important political figure. When it comes time to take the test, her results are inconclusive — meaning she is Divergent, a rare category of person, believed by most not even to exist. She doesn’t fit in anywhere. Divergents are considered a danger to the government’s conformist system and are quietly disposed of upon discovery.

So, she lies about her results, and on the day she is to choose her faction, her decision surprises everyone. But as she makes her way up through a brutal system, she starts to unravel a larger plot to usurp control of the system and to weed out — and kill — every single Divergent.

Divergent is another in our long list of recent teen lit adaptations, from a 100 percent unread-by-me novel by Veronica Roth, and it falls into a lot of the usual traps. From the premise alone, you can see that this is very much a piece of wish fulfillment, or at least worldview confirmation. Tris is a very special snowflake, dear teenage reader, just like you, and everyone else is just a part of the system.

Like a lot of these other adaptations, Divergent also assigns the least amount of personality to its male lead, who is, of course, a strong authority figure, dark and brooding but totally a cuddly wuddly teddy bear when you start to draw out his good side, and, double of course, significantly older in an almost creepy way than the female protagonist with whom he starts to fall in love.

And, inevitably, Divergent is regularly reminiscent of The Hunger Games in a way that can’t be entirely by accident, from the factions/districts to the main character’s morose and gray hometown to the shots of all the factions’ kids marching down the colorless streets to the ceremony that will decide their fates.

Despite that, part of me wishes Divergent were worse than it is. At least, then, I wouldn’t have to be so conflicted about it. As unworkable as this premise is — and yes, we are getting there in just a minute — the cast and crew involved sure did their best to make the most of it. Honestly, Divergent is pretty watchable. I can’t really think of any stretch of it where I was outright bored. It’s a little on the long side, true, and it still can’t help but feel like a tiny piece of a story that hasn’t even begun resolving itself. But it could definitely be a lot worse. Shailene Woodley does a great job, as has increasingly become the norm for her, and it’s hard not to admire the tenacity she brings to the role. Even the supporting cast could be a lot worse — outside of her romantic interest, most of them are pretty lively and likable. I particularly enjoyed Zoe Kravitz’s blunt and sarcastic character from Candor.

So, there are some moments that work and some others that don’t quite, but every last one of them is undercut by the premise. And it’s time we started talking about that now.

There’s really only one way I could see this idea working, and that’s as a really broad and simple individuality fable, one so stripped-down that it wouldn’t have much choice other than to be pitched at young children. The second you try to apply real-world complexity to the situation, the whole thing collapses completely.

The faction system is totally in conflict with basic facts about humanity, and for a supposedly well-oiled and efficient machine, it has a whole lot of holes.

According to this movie, you’re either selfless, brave, kind, honest, or intelligent. In the story’s universe, most people slide into a faction without any friction whatsoever. Almost no one is Divergent, which is to say, has even two of these traits in combination. Translation: Tris is one of only a handful of full human beings in a world full of complete automatons.

And maybe if the movie stuck with that and portrayed its world as actually being that way, I could get behind it. It is science fiction, after all. But no — the story is very definitely trying to approximate reality with its characters, so it has no choice but to write everyone as human. Thus, they have wide varieties of personality traits, not all of which conform to their factions, and yet, they’re easily categorized and don’t rub against the system overmuch. Only Tris, who doesn’t seem fundamentally different from everyone else and, in fact, ends up fitting into the faction of her choice more entirely than a lot of other characters, is considered special, having all of the traits. Also, the test that identifies her as Divergent doesn’t exactly explore what that means. Actually, I’m baffled that Divergents are apparently rare in this world. The decisions she makes in that test seem like the decisions most people would make. Because, again, most people don’t have one single personality trait that defines the whole of their being.

Moreover, I just don’t understand how this system works. What if somebody loves farming and is a jerk? Are they still in Amity? Why does intelligence seem as though it can’t be paired with any other possible trait? Why don’t enterprising young men and women without moral compasses take a free ride into Candor or Abnegation, where they can become politicians or lawyers in a system that’s actually been built on an honor code that just assumes all participants to be honest or selfless? Fans would probably tell me that all these people would end up categorized as Divergent, but I say again: Most people are like this. Most of the characters in Divergent are like this. We see a kid from Abnegation choose Erudite, and he doesn’t lose his compassion. We see another from Candor choose Dauntless, and she doesn’t lose her big mouth. With everyone being able to transfer, how has this system not melded to a point where all the factions are indistinguishable anyway?

Honestly, the “choice” part of the story is a weirdly democratic fixture and one that seems as though it would completely compromise the system it’s intended to create. The kids in this world are trained in the efforts of their home faction from birth, so they’re going to be the experts. Then, they get the chance to wander off to a faction they know nothing about, where they’ll inherently be under-equipped. You lose talent to a faction where they’ll be less effective, and you gain a whole bunch of finnicky nobodies who are going to be a burden.

At the beginning of the movie, I began wondering what was stopping the especially lazy from picking something high-skill, like Dauntless or Erudite, something they could never be trained to do, and then sitting on the sidelines, since what else are they going to do? The movie does try to answer this, by establishing that kids who fail their training become factionless — homeless, essentially. But isn’t that a fundamental flaw in this system that supposedly works? It’s basically institutionalized homelessness. Based on the rankings board we see throughout the film, roughly one-third of every generation becomes homeless. And it’s not like the nation leaves them alone. It’s shown that Abnegation devotes considerable resources to helping the factionless.

Again — this whole thing works? How?

I’m willing to write off a lot of things as movie logic. Just look at The Hunger Games — that premise just plain could not happen in the real world. It’s impossible. But the process by which it came about isn’t important. Everyone in the story when we enter it is still reacting to the games as you’d expect them to based on the rules of the universe. Divergent, on the other hand, is playing by our rules when it comes to characterization — which, since the story kind of demands flat characters, is a bit of a problem. I can’t even begin to make sense of a single second of it. There are moments of it that are actually fairly compelling in a “character we like facing a threat” sense. But I had to spend all of those scenes wrestling with the complete impossibility of everything I was watching.

It’s a world that could only be believed by teenagers, because they’re the only people who think it already exists. To be fair, if you’ve got a teenager, there are way worse ways to spend two hours. But there are way, way better ones, too.

-Matt T.