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‘Unfriended’ makes a legitimate villain of your computer

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Unfriended (2015)

Directed by Levan Gabriadze

6.5/10  R

Tonight, I’m sorry to report that I can’t help you by recommending or not recommending the new horror movie “Unfriended.” Here’s why.

Essentially, “Unfriended” is like “Saw” on Skype. The entire movie is shown using the desktop screen of Blaire (Shelley Henig), a high school student who has a video chat with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and four of their friends (Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, and Courtney Halverson). But there’s also a seventh caller, who has no mgid-uma-image-mtvusername or profile picture. And as often as they try, they can’t hang up on the mystery caller. Eventually, the caller claims to be Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide a year ago after a video of her passed out drunk at a party in soiled shorts was posted on YouTube. She tests the bond of these friends by making them confront their nastiest secrets, including some that led to her suicide. As we see Blaire (like Linda Blair, star of “The Exorcist,” or the Blair Witch?) read online that ghosts can possess people and cause them to take their own life, we see proof of that on the glitchy computer screen in front of us.

“Unfriended” revolutionizes the horror genre, though the years of Skype and Facebook have given way to FaceTime and Twitter, for the most part. Though there’s no score, only Blaire’s occasional iTunes track and the nearly constant white noise of shouting, scared-shitless friends, the computer idea is actually an effective vehicle for horror. We get to see the reactions of six (five, four, three…) people as they confront each other, confront Laura’s ghost, and confront themselves. The glitchy cameras of the Skypers can get annoying, but when the horror is happening it’ll come in handy to scare the crap out of you. Karma is a bitch, and her name is Laura Barns. But as effective as “Unfriended” is at making unfriendedyou feel truly sorry for the victims—and you really do…like in “Saw,” you think they deserve some punishment for their sins but certainly not this—it also makes you look within. Think back. Have you ever cyber-bullied? Even as a joke? When’s the last time you commented on a YouTube video saying something you wouldn’t have said to the user’s face? Then this movie is about you, too. Does the punishment fit the crime? Maybe if you were the victim of the original attack.

“Unfriended,” the simple-premised, low-budget movie that it is, is still with me. In my gut. It’s not quite horror that I feel. Is it guilt? I couldn’t say. If you want to come out of a movie feeling like this, go for it. “Unfriended” is well-made and effectively terrifying. But for my part, I think I’ll stick with the horror movies that don’t cut quite so deep.

‘Monkey Kingdom’ is a wildly fun time

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Monkey Kingdom (2015)

Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill

7.5/10  G

Like all other films, any good documentary has to tell a story. But sometimes, compelling narratives aren’t easy to come by in documentaries. Real life gets in the way and intended plots fade away into unfortunate facts. Nothing ruins a good story like the truth. But deep in the jungle ruins of a Sri Lankan rain forest, Disneynature (whose first DOM_TRLR2_Shot4_Cdocumentary, “Earth,” released seven years ago to acclaim) found a troop of toque macaques (pronounced toke muh-cacks) who became the perfect subjects for their next great story.

Toque macaques live exclusively in Sri Lanka, where they are sometimes referred to as the “temple monkeys” for their tendency to live among the country’s many ancient abandoned ruins. They’re the smallest of the macaques, but also the species with the most highly structured social order. The alpha male (in this troop, a stoic macaque known as Raja) lives the high life. This is as literal as it is figurative, as the alpha gets privileged high placement in the fig tree, where the best fruit is found. Below him are three sisters, unnamed aggressive-looking creatures unafraid to smack a bothersome child or scare away a mother looking for a bite to eat. At the bottom of the ladder, scavenging for food on the dangerous jungle ground, is Maya, a Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom..Ph: Film Frame..?Disneynature 2015young macaque who was born into this lower-class existence. Soon, she finds hope in a new addition to the troop, Kumar, and becomes pregnant. But when Kumar is driven away by a jealous Raja, and Maya’s son Kip is born without a father, single mother Maya is left to raise her son the only way she knows how – scrapping for everything she can. They’ll have to avoid monitor lizards and leopards, and try to find food where the three sisters won’t bother her. When another troop drives away our protagonists, they’ll be driven into the kingdom of the city, where they will struggle to adapt to the human way of life. Eventually, though, things will turn around in the unlikeliest of ways and a stand-off will lead to a shake-up of the social order in this troop.

Narrated by the bubbly and animated voice of Tina Fey, “Monkey Kingdom” finds a friend in lighthearted humor. The macaques, the expressive and comical apes that they are, are ideal subjects. The children climb on the tails of Monkey_kingdomtheir mothers as the adult males vie for females’ attention during courtship season. It’s thoroughly enjoyable. But it’s a story not unlike a classic gangster tale, with a defined social order enforced by thugs and challenged by rival gangs, who will do anything to claim the territory they think they deserve. It has heartbreak, as Disney dutifully tells of death and injury, quickly but with reverence for the lives of those lost to natural predators. But mostly, the story plays out in a way we might not have ever expected. It’s a beautiful story, narrated with great humor (including Fey lending her voice to the macaques when she thinks they have something they want to say). If nothing else, “Monkey Kingdom” is the ideal promotional video for Sri Lankan tourism. The city bustles with elephants on parade, while the jungle has its own perks – a beautiful abandoned temple filled with a range of extraordinary wildlife. It’s like a real life “Jungle Book.”

Monkey-Kingdom-1“Monkey Kingdom” is the perfect choice for the whole family. Children love the adorable macaques at play. Adults will appreciate the class structure story for what it is. I expected Disney to do a satisfactory job – they always do – but I didn’t expect to enjoy myself as much as I did. Disneynature may have just topped itself.

‘True Story’ is a major let-down

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True Story (2015)

Directed by Rupert Goold

5.5/10  R

The trailer may imply that “True Story” is about a calculating killer’s choice to give his final interview to a disgraced New York Times journalist. But this is really the story of two comedic actors struggling to find their footing in drama.

Jonah Hill, who plays reporter Mike Finkel, comes off as pushy in an attempt to be taken seriously. I thought films like “Moneyball” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” comedy-dramas which both earned Hill supporting actor Oscar true-story-03_articlenominations, would have served as a buffer to get him into dramatic film – but it’s impossible to take him seriously. It seems that he tries at all costs to avoid humor, even when it could have been natural for his character to crack a joke. He tries too hard to prove himself. Playing accused killer Christian Longo, James Franco repeats the minimal effort he used in movies like “Homefront” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (which I still hate). Deep sighs are used in an attempt to be mysterious, but it really just shows off Franco’s lack of talent. Even his five-minute courtroom monologue is yawn-worthy. He’s entirely devoid of emotion. This is method acting at its worst. I still say his best role may have been 2008’s “Pineapple Express.” And perhaps even more disappointing is Felicity Jones, playing Finkel’s wife Jill. Coming off an Oscar nomination for “The Theory of Everything,” her talent is completely wasted.

“True Story” is based on the true story (yes, shocking, I know) of Longo, who was accused in 2001 of murdering his ixZ69kBno7wife and three children. When he was arrested after fleeing to Cancun, Longo claimed to be Mike Finkel of The New York Times, a reporter whose career he followed very closely. Just months earlier, Finkel had been let go from the Times for slightly altering the story of an African child-slave he interviewed, in order to make his story more impactful. Longo gave his last interview to Finkel, and Finkel decided to write a full-length book telling Longo’s side.

The story, of course, couldn’t really be altered for the movie. That would literally defeat the entire purpose of the story, which is about telling the truth and not beefing stories up for the sake of the storyteller’s success. And the story itself is okay. But the delivery was dead on arrival. Screenwriter David Kajganich (“The Invasion”) andwriter/director Rupert Goold don’t give us any character development. We know nothing about Mike, and even less about his wife. Felicity Jones is silent for most of her screentime, leaving the watch-james-franco-jonah-hill-in-true-story-2015-movie-trailer-videoaudience confused about what role she played in the story at all. It seems as though they wanted to make her more of a major player than she was. And the script itself is riddled with clichés. Finkel is absurdly righteous, saying things like “Everybody deserves to have their story heard” in a laughably serious tone.

So far, “True Story” is easily the biggest let-down of 2015. With four Oscar nominations among its three stars, I hoped for something a little better than this. No, a lot better than this.

‘While We’re Young’ is the movie of the moment

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While We’re Young (2015)

Directed/written by Noah Baumbach

7.5/10  R

No director today has starred in as many hipster wet dreams as Wes Anderson. But Anderson’s movies aren’t a one-man show. His Oscar-winning set and costume designers help. So, too, has two-time Anderson co-writer Noah Baumbach, whose own directorial came in 2005 with “The Squid and the Whale,” a semi-autobiographical account of Baumbach’s childhood. His newest, “While We’re Young,” also tackles an important time in Baumbach’s whilewereyoung-mv-2life – middle age.

Documentarians Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (Ben Stiller) are losing all of their friends to parenthood. The loving New York couple has tried, and failed, to have children, and has since abandoned the idea. They love their life as it is now, full of freedoms that most of their friends can no longer claim they have. When a youthful, beguiling couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), enroll in Josh’s class about documentary filmmaking, Josh invites them to lunch with his wife. As their friendship with the kiddos blossoms, Josh and Cornelia revel in the freedom of the youthful counter-culture they once thrived in. But soon they’ll realize being young in today’s world isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

“While We’re Young” is distinctly of this time, but also entirely of its own world. Jamie and Darby do hipster things I While-We-re-Young_0had no idea even existed. That’s the complicated nature of today’s youth. Hipsters love Baumbach, but “While We’re Young” seems to give them the middle finger. Sure, Jamie is a new hipster icon – the vinyl collection, the fedora, the typewriter – but Josh and Cornelia realize that growing old isn’t something to run from. Baumbach seems to reject today’s trends, like the overuse of smart phones and the constant need to film and document every instance of one’s daily life. He suggests that this constant need to share has ruined the future of documentary filmmaking – but even more, the future of living. Okay, maybe that’s harsh. But Baumbach’s screenplay is smartly written. It’s a manifesto for anyone trying to avoid growing up.

If film casting is an art, Francine Frasier is its Picasso. Her résumé includes films like “The Usual Suspects,” “As Good as it Gets,” “Tropic Thunder,” and the past two Best Picture winners, “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman.” Along with frequent Wes Anderson casting director Douglas Aibel, Frasier puts together another wonderful ensemble in “While We’re Young.” Driver and Seyfried are soon-to-be heroes of the hipster counter-culture. They live in a EEL_14272-1024x681flat with a roommate, two cats, and a pet chicken. They read old books and listen to Foreigner. And they have the care free energy that define their characters. Driver and Stiller have an interesting multi-generational bromantic chemistry. It’s truly something to behold. And Naomi Watts, fresh off a Screen Actors Guild ensemble win for “Birdman” and another nomination for “St. Vincent,” shows she’s back in a big way. Can I coin the term Naomaissance?

To call it a coming-of-age story wouldn’t be entirely false. It’s just that, in this case, the age is closer to 50 than 15. “While We’re Young” is the movie of the moment. It’s as meaningful for people coming to terms with their middle age as it is for hipsters finding an identity of their own. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Brosnan typifies Bond in ‘Die Another Day’

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Die Another Day (2002)

Directed by Lee Tamahori

6.5/10  PG-13

The beauty of the James Bond franchise is that every film has a unique flare, yet they all share a common thread that sets them apart from every other spy movie out there. Different actors play the role, different actresses serve as Bond girls, different singers belt out iconic themes, but a Bond film is always a Bond film. And for 50 years, people have argued die-another-day-8over which Bond is best. 90s kids like myself (we all love identifying as 90s kids, don’t we?) may not be able to say we lived in the golden era of Bond, though we did live in the GoldenEye era. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I love Pierce Brosnan and I’m not ashamed. When I was a ten-year-old boy obsessed with cool shootouts, Brosnan had his last bow as Bond in “Die Another Day.” Everything about it screamed the 1990s, from the Madonna theme to the unnecessarily large explosions to the outfits. Just ignore the fact that it was actually released in 2002.

Bond has troubles in North Korea when a popular engineer (Toby Stephens) creates a space weapon that harnesses the power of the sun and shoots beams of light more powerful than any amount of nuclear weapons. Bond finds the help of American spy Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) and fellow MI6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamond Pike) to stop Die-Another-Day (1)the developer before he destroys an American base in South Korea and begins a third world war.

With a plot that includes surfing, hovercrafts, and a car chase on ice, “Die Another Day” threw plausibility out the window very early on. Not that Bond has ever been one to take the easy road. But even if the visual effects in 2002 didn’t allow Bond’s invisible Aston Martin to look quite right, you have to love the effort. It’s like “Die Another Day” recycled all of the absurd GoldenEye video game tricks and put them in a movie. And it has a notoriously bad case of the bad guys not being able to shoot anything, though they fire exponentially more rounds than Bond. It has the classic Bond word play, too. Brosnan and Berry have an entire conversation made up of playful metaphors and double entendres likening sexual promiscuity to the behavior of predatory animals. “Die Another Day” is full of those one-liners that make you smile and also make you ashamed.

Brosnan himself is, in my opinion, a stellar Bond. Not in the uber-classy, always serious way Daniel Craig is now. No Die-Another-Day-Dinner-Suit-1024x631-720x443one denies that he has really excelled. But Brosnan shines in a different way, in the cheesy, almost cartoonish way that I see the character of James Bond. Self-aware, always acknowledging his character and his quirks. It’s wonderful. Halle Berry, coming off her Best Actress win for “Monster’s Ball,” is unfortunately more reminiscent of her cheesy performance in “The Flintstones.” But she matches Brosnan’s charming wit. And gone girl Rosamond Pike definitely hadn’t hit her Oscar-nominated peak.

“Die Another Day” is classic James Bond, at least when you’re my age. In my mind, Bond can do no wrong. So even an otherwise dud of a movie like “Die Another Day” can live on in history without the ravages of a lethal review. Viva la Bond!

‘The Skeleton Twins’ diversifies Wiig and Hader

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The Skeleton Twins (2014)

Directed by Craig Johnson

7/10  R

After graduating from “Saturday Night Live” in 2012 and 2013, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader teamed up for “The Skeleton Twins,” forever shedding their hokey “SNL” antics and forging a career in serious family dramas…or, something like that. They aren’t completely over being hilarious, but “The Skeleton Twins” is a step toward careers that are broader in their legacy.

When an attempted suicide brings together estranged twins Maggie (Wiig) and Milo Dean (Hader) after a ten-year the-skeleton-twins1lapse in communication, they’ll work to repair their relationship. But both are harboring secrets that remind them why they met under such unfortunate circumstances, and why it had been so long. Maggie has since married loving handyman Lance (Luke Wilson, wonderful). Milo has been struggling to make a successful acting career. As they peel off old scabs and make room for new ones, Maggie and Milo will need to look within and without to fix themselves.

Written by director Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman (who I was surprised to see also wrote the Writers Guild-nominated screenplay for “Black Swan” in 2010), “The Skeleton Twins” is a murky blend of merry and malice. It’s dark, but not unrealistic. Hilarious, but heartbreaking. But it’s also underwhelming. I wanted – and expected – more from it. Wiig and Hader are magical together, but at the film’s heaviest moments they fail to deliver the skeleton-twins-articlepowerful emotional punch they needed to. They were far more convincing than I would expect “SNL” alums to be, but they still aren’t De Niro and Streep. With a plot so substantial (disregarding what I’ll bring up next), these stars needed to bring more than their A-game. They owed it to the film. But, like I said, the screenplay isn’t perfect either. We hear almost nothing about the past ten years. They bring up mutual high school acquaintances and talk about their parents, but neither of them see it fit to dive into the unknown reason they haven’t talked in a decade. My guess is they couldn’t think of a clever enough reason, so they just ignored it. Tsk, tsk.

Still, “The Skeleton Twins” is a touching family dramedy that’s beautiful in its simplicity. It’s dark, but with a lively, beating heart. “The Skeleton Twins” does it right, even when it misses its mark.

’71 : Proof that O’Connell is the real deal

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’71 (2014)

Directed by Yann Demange

7/10  R

Nominated for the coveted BAFTA Award for Best British Film (won in past years by films like “Gravity,” “Skyfall,” and “The King’s Speech”), “’71” is the monumental first effort from director Yann Demange, screenwriter Gregory Burke, and actor Jack O’Connell (who months later starred in “Unbroken”).

In 1971, a reemergence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) led to rioting on the streets of Belfast where a Catholic neighborhood and a Protestant neighborhood bumped against each other. The British army was called in to 71-jack-o-connell-guerre-urbainekeep the peace, but when rioters drove the soldiers away with rocks they had no choice but to retreat. In the chaos, the troops didn’t realize that they left behind Gary Hook (O’Connell), who had stepped away to deal with one especially rowdy rioter. Nearing sundown, Hook was left in hostile territory, being chased by men who would kill any solider that threatened to interfere on their streets. He’ll encounter people who claim to be on his side, but at the end of the day loyalties are hard to judge from a first impression.

Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe set the tone early on with disorienting cinematography that doesn’t rest until Hook finds temporary relief. From there, we’re just as terrified as he is. “’71” isn’t the most exciting war movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s one of the more suspenseful ones. As Hook runs into friends and enemies, the audience starts 5409cfaa193f09557a7d1636_71-jack-oconnellto discover that sometimes those are the same people. Who’s on whose team? At its core, “’71” is a film about corruption and loyalties.

Hook is a man of few words, which leads him to be mostly devoid of characterization. Thankfully, classic everyman O’Connell fills him with a convincing amount of dread. The audience fears for him. We get frustrated at times. This happened in “Unbroken,” too, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. O’Connell is a rising star. Unfortunately, his costars have even less characterization. But that lets us focus all of our attention on Hook. It is his story, after all.

“’71” is a triumphant bit of British war cinema, filled with suspense. It’s not your papa’s shootout flick. And that’s a good thing.

‘Get Hard’ is a funny enough distraction

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Get Hard (2015)

Directed by Etan Cohen

6.5/10  R

Soon, 47-year-old Will Ferrell will be too old to get away with this type of humor. But for now, he can still get 200 people in a packed theater audience to laugh so loud they drown out the next joke. In his newest Adam McKay-produced movie, “Get Hard,” Ferrell plays wealthy stockbroker James King, who was just arrested for embezzlement. Get-Hard-Ferrell-Hart-3-770x470In the 30 days before he has to serve a ten-year maximum-security prison sentence, King will ask the help of Darnell (Kevin Hart), the man that washes his car, to train him for jail. They’ll simulate prison riots, practice insults, and try to find a suitable gang to protect King on the inside. All of this humors Darnell’s wife (Edwina Findley Dickerson) and cousin (T.I.), who know how soft Darnell really is. Will King be prison-ready in 30 days, or will he be looking at an impossible ten years?

Claims of homophobia and racism have already tainted “Get Hard” before it even hits theaters. But I wasn’t surprised. These are the dated kinds of comedy that still make people laugh. It made me laugh. It’s hard not to, at times. The four-man writing crew includes McKay, who wrote “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers,” two of Ferrell’s funniest, and Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, who helped pen every episode of the hit sketch show “Key and Peele.” Knowing that, you shouldn’t be surprised that “Get Hard” was able to squeak out a few comic gems.

APphoto_Film Review Get HardWill Ferrell isn’t quite what he used to be. His age hasn’t quite stopped him, but it hasn’t helped either. “Get Hard” falls somewhere between “Semi-Pro” and “Talladega Nights” on the Will Ferrell movie quality scale. Kevin Hart, just a few months after “The Wedding Ringer” (which is about equal to “Get Hard” in their ability to make me laugh) is already being pigeonholed into roles as the helpful black friend. It’s his niche, but one that he fills well. He has a steady future filling theaters and not earning a single worthwhile award nomination. But surprisingly, it was T.I. who stole the show with a killer cameo. He brings real acting to a movie that has very little of it.

“Get Hard” is what you’d expect – a vulgar, low-brow addition to the Ferrell résumé. It’s moderately funny for now, but I don’t expect it to be added to the comedy canon.

‘The Drop’ : A grown-up Hardy boy mystery

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The Drop (2014)

Directed by Michael Roskam

7.5/10  R

When Boston-native Dennis Lehane wrote the novels “Shutter Island,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Mystic River,” I’m certain he had no idea they would be turned into movies directed by the likes of Scorsese, Affleck, and Eastwood. Or that “Shutter Island” would crack IMDb’s list of the 250 Greatest Movies of All-time. Or that “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” would receive Oscar nominations. Or that “Mystic River” would win two. Any writer would be THE DROPhappy to see his stories find big-screen success like that. But Lehane wanted more. He had dipped his toes into writing teleplays for “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” but he wanted to adapt his own work himself. So he did. Though it never received the critical success of the others, 2014’s “The Drop” (adapted by Lehane from his short story “Animal Rescue”) possesses the same smart and gritty entertainment value that made the others such huge hits.

In Brooklyn, too much money passes between drug dealers to handle it themselves. So they designate one bar every night to be the drop bar, where all of that money is handled and kept in a sizable safe until it can get into the right hands. One day, the drop bar is the one tended by Bobby (Tom Hardy) and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini). But they get in over their heads when they’re held up at gunpoint and the money is taken. They don’t have the money, but that doesn’t mean they’re not expected to. Ruthless rough guy Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) will do whatever it takes to get that money back, even if it means threatening his ex-girlfriend, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who has been helping Bobby train his new dog. Until the end of the movie, you The Drop Movie (5)don’t know where allegiances lie or who’s working with whom. Lehane only reveals what he wants you to see. You’ll be annoyed at first, but you’ll thank him later.

Lehane’s script is cryptic – scryptic, if you will. You know less than the characters, which is always a frustrating position to be in. By the end of the film, you feel as though you hardly know anyone at all. Lehane isn’t the only one keeping information from you. Hardy and Gandolfini lie right to our faces. But we buy it because they’re so incredible. Gandolfini, in his last role before his early death, is everything he ever was on-screen. Intimidating but tender, dramatic but lovable. He’s brilliant. Tom Hardy sports a pretty convincing Brooklyn drawl like a poor man’s De Niro. He shows his versatility in this one.

“The Drop” is a slow-burning mystery classic. It’s smartly-written and convincingly-acted. It’s the gangster drama we deserve.

“The Drop” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

‘Divergent’ hardly diverges at all

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Divergent (2014)

Directed by Neil Burger

5.5/10  PG-13

I waited until just before its sequel to watch the YA sensation “Divergent.” Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t regret waiting. But in the spirit of divergence, I’ll be writing this review in the form of a list. Here are the top five reasons “Divergent” failed to make a good impression:

1. Disappointing performances – High expectations usually follow the stars of Oscar darlings like “Titanic,” “The Descendants,” and “Whiplash,” so when Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, and Miles Teller all give laughable performances, you’re disappointed. You expected better. Teller is foolish as an unapologetic asshole. Woodley shows a few fits of convincing emotion, but the whole cast seems like they’re faking it.

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2. Horrific script – “Divergent” has one of the worst screenplays, dialogue-wise, that I’ve ever heard. And I’m already tired of dystopian future YA plots. Boring!

3. Confusion – Not to mention, I’m still not entirely sure what “Divergent” is about. Or why it’s worth competing with “The Hunger Games” or “The Maze Runner,” which are both more entertaining than this franchise (at least on the screen…I’ve never read the books).

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4. Fight, fight, fight! – “Divergent” also has tacky and unrealistic fight choreography, making even its few exciting fight scenes come off as phony. And when they shoot, it’s not to kill. It’s only to stun. That’s the problem with “adventure” movies that are rated PG-13.

5. IT’S TWO HOURS AND TWENTY MINUTES LONG.

“Divergent” is just another dystopian YA story about sticking it to the man. But it doesn’t do enough to set itself apart from the others.