DIVERGENT (PG-13) Hunger Games comparisons are inevitable. While Veronica Roth’s book loses the head-to-head against Suzanne Collins’ bestseller, Neil Burger’s filmed adaptation might best Gary Ross’ original Games. In a dystopian future Chicago, humanity is divided into five factions. Right before Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is to choose the faction in which she’ll spend the rest of her life, the teenager learns she is Divergent, whatever that means. Tris, as she chooses to be called, selects Dauntless, the faction most appealing to teens as they spend most of their time yelling and jumping from trains. Oh yeah, they’re civilization’s soldiers too. After a grueling initiation during which she makes a love connection with the studly instructor, Four (Theo James), Tris learns her perfect society and all Divergents are under attack. The movie distills 500 pages of plot into a pretty decent two-plus-hour flick as scripters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor smartly eschew Tris’ inner monologues, save for her opening and closing thoughts. Burger excels at sci-fi (see Limitless) and the casting is spot on. Woodley’s the most believably unsure YA heroine seen on the big screen, and James increases Four’s appeal from the page. Bring on Insurgent.
VERONICA MARS (PG-13) I had to elicit some assistance to fairly review the Kickstarter-funded big screen case solved by all-grown-up teen sleuth Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell). Having devoutly watched all three seasons, I love the movie as the fan service it most certainly is; everybody returns, if even for the briefest of appearances. (How many more dead TV series could live again via a "where are they now" reunion movie? “Buffy,” please?) According to my non-fan wife, the movie succeeds apart from the series as any good mystery yarn should. Veronica returns to Neptune, CA, to help former boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) beat a murder rap and reunite with old friends (Wallace and Mac, naturally) and an enemy (Madison, grrr) at her high school reunion. That girl ruined a lot of lives while snooping through her high school’s halls. Series creator Rob Thomas wrote and directed a solid feature debut with a compelling central mystery, though it watches as well from your couch as in a theater. Marshmallows missing Veronica’s sharp tongue and one of television’s greatest father-daughter relationships (Enrico Colantoni’s Keith Mars is simply the best) can rejoice. Everyone else, welcome to Neptune.
AMERICAN HUSTLE (R) This fictional account of the real life ABSCAM investigation that sent several members of federal, state and local government to prison was nominated for ten Academy Awards. Conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his not exactly British girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), are forced by an unstable FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), into conning the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner). Russell has proven an uncanny ability to take a great cast and make them greater. American Hustle is a film made for ensemble cast awards; picking one standout is nearly impossible. Go see it. (Ciné)
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (R) 2013. Matriarch Violet Weston (Academy Award nominee Meryl Streep, chewing up scenes and spitting them out in illustrious award bait fashion) has cancer and is cancerous. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), disappears, bringing her three unhappy daughters—Barb (Academy Award nominee Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—back home. Playwright Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe) adapts his play for the screen, but it’s still mostly a series of shouted monologues so stagy, one expects an intermission. This movie is old-fashioned award porn, fashioned from three Oscar winners (Streep, Roberts and Chris Cooper) and three more nominees (Lewis, Shepard and Abigail Breslin). Streep’s diehard fanbase of middle aged to older women will devour this exhausting film; others beware.
ECOFOCUS FILM FESTIVAL The sixth annual Ecofocus Film Festival is currently underway, with remaining films including GMO OMG and Tiny: A Story About Living Small. The Ripple Effect will showcase films about water conservation created by filmmakers of all ages and levels of experience. (Ciné)
GLORIA (R) 2013. Gloria stars Paulina Garcia as a single, spontaneous older woman who seeks excitement and company. However, when she falls for an ex-naval officer, Gloria is must confront secrets from her haunting past.
GOD'S NOT DEAD (PG) When a freshman is forced to deny his faith in order to pass a required Philosophy class, he bargains with his professor, who requires him to prove God's existence for his grade. However, this challenging assignment not only starts to threaten his grade but his relationships, future and faith.
HER (R) 2013. Her stars a really nice, mild–mannered Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. Ted writes personal letters for strangers and is struggling through a divorce. Then he meets his new Operating System and falls in love…with the OS. Scarlett Johannson voices the OS, Samantha, so the concept isn’t THAT outlandish. The film is mostly Phoenix interacting with Johannson’s voice. Sometimes an unmade Amy Adams pops by to again verify her brilliance. While Phoenix and ScarJo incredibly do their thing, Jonze and his behind the scenes folk drip visual magic into audience eyes with their retro-future design. This film is unreservedly wonderful. (Ciné)
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (PG-13) Peter Jackson’s first return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, did not disappoint, even if it failed to excite like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The second Hobbit feature still feels hobbled by a feeling of déjà vu. Armies of orcs marching to war or battles against giant killer spiders are nothing new. But when Jackson takes us to new locales like Lake Town at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, where mammoth dragon Smaug (v. Benedict Cumberbatch) resides, the epic fantasy film reaches toward those heights of its predecessor. The return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does not hurt nor does the first appearance of the lovely elven warrior, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, best known as Kate from “Lost”). The river barrel ride that acts as the film’s highlight action set piece is spectacular, except for moments of poor FX so uncharacteristic of Jackson or the Weta digital effects house. Smaug, though, is a wonder, a massive work of CGI art. The climactic, fiery escape from the Lonely Mountain leaves the audience breathless, eager for the final installment, There and Back Again, due next December.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (PG-13) The Hunger Games returns, and its sequel, while more a formality setting up the series’ final, revolutionary entry, improves upon an original that was more of a visual book report than an exciting cinematic adaptation. (Original director Gary Ross’ absence was addition by subtraction.) After surviving the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are the Capitol’s newest celebrities. But all is not well in the Districts, and creepy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, who I’ve only just noticed resembles Sid Haig) lets Katniss know it by putting her back in the next year’s Games. New director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) paces the film better once we escape District 12 (every scene in it is so drab and boring), and the Quarter Quell is excitingly envisioned with deadly fog, killer monkeys and fun new faces like Finnick (a key new role well played by Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone). Largely dismissed as repetitive upon the novel’s release, the underrated Catching Fire successfully adds more wrinkles to the Suzanne Collins’ formula than its more straightforward predecessor. However, it’s about time Katniss take more charge of her situation, a flaw hopefully remedied by the franchise finale, Mockingjay.
THE LEGO MOVIE (PG) The LEGO Movie is most certainly the young year’s best new, wide release. The intricate, interconnected universes built by writing-directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street) have an age-defying Muppets-like appeal. When generic construction mini-figure Emmet (v. Chris Pratt, who is so devilishly appealing) gets up in the morning, he follows the day’s instructions as handed down by president/overlord Business (v. Will Ferrell). Soon, Emmet gets involved with a Matrix-ian rebel group led by Vitruvius (v. Morgan Freeman), a pretty mini-fig who goes by Wildstyle (v. Elizabeth Banks) and her BF, Batman (v. Will Arnett). The LEGO Movie uses its licenses (D.C., Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings) smartly as it argues for the salvation of creativity. A movie made from the toy that frees the childhood (and adult) imagination has to stay on its toes in order not to diminish the property. This film, which should battle for the year’s best animated film come the next awards cycle, reconstructs the greatest childhood movie memories from the building blocks that best defined the young and not-yet-so-old generation.
LONE SURVIVOR (R) The spoiler-ishly titled Lone Survivor does not hide from what it is, which amounts to injury porn in the second act (the characters’ two falls are brutal). While on Operation Red Wings, four Navy SEALs—team leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Axe (Ben Foster), Danny (Emile Hirsch, who more and more resembles a tiny version of Jack Black) and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), upon whose book this film is based—battle an army of Taliban fighters. The cinematic account of this true story is written and directed by Peter Berg, whose The Kingdom was severely underrated (and superior to his latest), like Friday Night Lights with soldiers. Even the incredible Explosions in the Sky provides the score. Nothing about Lone Survivor is particularly unsuccessful, though which member of the bearded quartet is which can be hard to distinguish during the hectic firefight. Berg shoots action with a visceral viciousness, taking some visual cues from first-person shooters like Call of Duty (a videogame movie Berg will probably one day helm). Lone Survivor will please the action-heads out there, but it takes the home movies before the end credits to remind audiences these soldiers were actual husbands and fathers.
THE MONUMENTS MEN (PG-13) The Monuments Men is a rousing World War II yarn about an unlikely platoon assigned the mission of protecting humanity’s art from history’s greatest douchebags, the Nazis. Seriously, already history’s top seed in any Tournament of Big Bads, the Nazis were also giant d-bags who burned great works of art because they couldn’t have it. Fortunately, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville scoured the war-torn continent and nabbed the best stuff from those firebug Nazis and art-thieving Soviets. The true story recounted by writer-director George Clooney is a fascinating historical footnote that makes for great cinema. It’s just that this level of filmmaker and cast promises grander, award-winning cinema. The Monuments Men is seeking that level of acclaim, and the entertaining war drama delivers a mature, art-filled reboot of “Hogan’s Heroes.” (Hollywood, take this cast, toss in Christoph Waltz, and let the Cloon jam on a big screen “Hogan’s.” I dare you.) The Monuments Men has too many appealing personalities; the audience never gets to spend enough time with Murray/Balaban, Goodman/Dujardin, Damon/Cate Blanchett or Clooney. But the time we get is well-spent.
MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (PG) Mr. Peabody and Sherman get much better feature film treatment than their cartoon pals Rocky and Bullwinkle. The super smart canine, Mr. Peabody (v. Ty Burrell, "Modern Family"), and his adopted son, Sherman (v. Max Charles, young Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man), travel back in time via Peabody's WABAC machine. The duo meet Marie Antoinette, King Tut, Leonardo da Vinci (v. Stanley Tucci), Mona Lisa (v. Lake Bell) and other historical luminaries as they try to right the wrongs perpetrated against the space-time continuum. Burrell keeps Peabody as punny as ever, and kids will relate to Sherman's childish, lesson-teaching mistakes. The historical gags are a hit, though the dramatic narrative is structured too familiarly. And who is the target demo, kids who have never heard of these classic cartoons or the adults bound to be at least a little disappointed by the newfangled incarnations of their childhood faves? Trying to please both might not fully please either. Nonetheless, 2014 will see worse kids movies than Mr. Peabody & Sherman.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED (PG) The Muppets return with lots of celebrity friends (Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell have top billing)! When Kermit the Frog is mistaken for lookalike master criminal Constantine and imprisoned, the remainder of the troupe has to figure out how to stop a jewel heist. Interestingly, this Muppet sequel shares some narrative DNA with original Muppet Movie follow-up, The Great Muppet Caper. The Muppets (2011) director James Bobin returns; writer-producer-star Jason Segel does not.
NEED FOR SPEED (PG-13) Whether the moviegoing world wanted one or not, Fast & Furious now has a competitor in outlandish car-chase franchises. Need for Speed, based on the Electronic Arts series of racing videogames, stars Aaron Paul in his first major headlining gig post-“Breaking Bad,” and it’s fast enough to win the box office race, if nothing else. The way-too-generously plotted movie takes a while to reach its top speed as small town race car driver Tobey Marshall (Paul) establishes his bonafides. Once released from prison for a crime for which he was only tangentially responsible, Tobey drives his way into an exclusive underground race called the Deleon, mostly to seek revenge against real bad guy, professional race car driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). But who am I kidding, wasting so much space on a plot synopsis? What potential viewers of Need for Speed need to know is the cars are fast, exotic and well shot by director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor). Paul also proves capable as a leading man, and Michael Keaton continues his fun 2014 renaissance. Sure, the movie’s too long, but it’s a solid racing adventure that happens to be adapted from a videogame.
NINOTCHKA 1939. The Georgia Museum of Art accompanies the “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy” exhibit with Greta Garbo’s next-to-last film, which was billed as her first American comedy. The big tagline was, “Garbo Laughs!” In the Ernst Lubitsch classic (co-written by Billy Wilder), Garbo plays a stern Communist woman who falls for a Capitalist (Melvyn Douglas) she detests. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress. (Georgia Museum of Art)
NOAH (PG-13) Don’t ever say Darren Aronofsky isn’t a risk taker. His follow-up to Black Swan is a faithful adaptation of the biblical epic of Noah (Russell Crowe), who is tasked by God with the momentous job of saving the world—animal and man—from an apocalyptic flood. Jennifer Connelly costars as Naameh, wife of Noah; Emma Watson as Ila, wife of Shem; Logan Lerman as Ham, son of Noah; and Anthony Hopkins as ancient Methuselah, grandfather of Noah.
NON-STOP (PG-13) Maybe the Liam Neeson Action Star franchise isn’t dead yet. In his latest portrayal of the deadliest daddy ever, Neeson stars as Bill Marks, a U.S. Air Marshal receiving threatening texts “on a secure network” (oooh) demanding $150 million, or someone will die every 20 minutes. Neeson is joined by a big-name co-star, Julianne Moore, and several recognizable bit players like Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle “Lady Mary” Dockery and Scoot McNairy; however, the real co-star is the claustrophobic, transparent setting. Besides the lavatories and the cockpit, everything takes place in the various cabins of the transatlantic flight. (None of that cargo-hold crap resorted to by other plane-trapped protagonists.) A more than serviceable whodunit, Non-Stop should please the millions of mystery fans as well as those moviegoers feeling there are more asses Neeson needs to kick. As usual, the reveal is never as clever as the setup, but the tense first two acts are filling if not fulfilling. Marks could be a more pleasant protag with whom to spend two hours. Fortunately, the movie rarely slows down enough for Marks’ authoritarian abuses to outrage. I wonder if this flick will get shown on many future flights.
THE NUT JOB (PG) The latest animated feature (it seems as if there are so many nowadays) pits a curmudgeonly squirrel named (a bit on the nose) Surly (v. Will Arnett) against the city. When he finds Maury’s Nut Store, he may just have found the way to alleviate his and the rest of his park community’s winter worries. Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl are the next three biggest names in the voice cast. Will this movie capture its family audience without a big name like Disney or DreamWorks behind it?
THE ROOM (R) 2003. The Room, from baffling “auteur” Tommy Wiseau, might be the Mona Lisa of bad movies; its greatness lies in its mysterious smile, which a laughing Wiseau trots out at the oddest moments. The Room will leave you with so many questions that don’t need answering. Did Johnny and Lisa get married? What about Claudette’s cancer? Who uses a fake pregnancy bomb to spice up an uninteresting relationship? Why do they want to throw the football so much? Why must everyone keep repeating Mark’s status as Johnny’s “best friend?” Why am I in a theater at midnight watching this strange, hysterical man vomit drama on the big screen? (Ciné)
ROUGH AUNTIES 2008. As part of Women’s History Month, the University of Georgia Institute for Women’s Studies presents a screening of Rough Aunties. These extraordinary women would stop at nothing to protect the ill-treated children of Durban, South Africa. Sisters in Law and Divorce Iranian Style director Kim Longinotto’s documentary won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema—Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival; the film also picked up top doc prizes from Krakow, Indianapolis and St. Louis. (Miller Learning Center, Room 214)
SABOTAGE (R) Sabotage looks like the first film of Ah-nuld’s revived career with the potential to be more than a fun, action throwback. (Still, The Last Stand and Escape Plan had their minor charms.) The members of an elite DEA task force are being picked off after a big drug cartel bust. Joining Schwarzenegger are Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, Jon Manganiello, Josh Holloway and Mireille Enos. End of Watch writer-director David Ayer has really become a filmmaker to watch, if we’re talking about tough cop movies.
SON OF GOD (PG-13) At least The Passion of the Christ was a feature film and Mel Gibson a decorated (if now crazed) filmmaker. Son of God is cobbled together from the Jesus sequences (plus more!) from the History Channel miniseries, “The Bible,” and its slightly ethnic unknown actors do not benefit from the big screen treatment. The only debatably recognizable face is that of producer Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”), who plays Mary, Mother of Jesus. Portuguese-born Diogo Morgado is a photogenic Savior with a nice smile; he recedes into Christly caricature during the climactic imprisonment and crucifixion. An obvious cash grab by “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett (Downey’s husband), Son of God merely takes advantage of an audience hungry for faith-based films (see the success of the releases from Albany’s Sherwood Pictures) by repackaging previously seen material with a few new scenes, none of them worth the price of admission. Minus a whit of believer’s passion, this film simply retells the greatest story ever told like a Greatest Hits of Jesus compilation. Most viewers will have heard this tale told before and better.
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (R) More of a companion film than a sequel or prequel, 300: Rise of an Empire is better than the rest of the post-300 wannabes (The Immortals, Clash/Wrath of the Titans). Happening concurrently with the beautiful death of the abs of Sparta's King Leonidas, 300:RoaE finds a new, Athenian hero in Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). He must battle with god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his gorgeous naval commander, Artemesia (Eva Green, Casino Royale), if Greek society is to survive. Though Zack Snyder isn't around to direct, the script he cowrote allows new helmer Noam Murro (Smart People) to craft a stylistically similar movie. In other words, the entire movie looks like an extended video game cutscene. Outside of its gorgeous, violent visuals, 300 Again makes less of an impression, and its predecessor hasn't exactly mirrored Greece for cultural legacy. Stapleton is no Gerard Butler, and none of the supporters are going to be the next Michael Fassbender. No one will remember the events of More 300 hundreds of minutes later, but it's digital bloody fun for two hours.
TYLER PERRY'S THE SINGLE MOMS' CLUB (PG-13) Nia Long, Windi McLendon-Covey, Amy Smart, Zulay Henao and Cocoa Brown star in Perry's latest film about 5 different women who form a bond after a particular event at their children's school. The women use their sisterhood as an outlet for discussing their problems and offer advice to one another.
WALTER 2013. Excitedly, Ciné is one of 17 theaters nationwide to receive a Coolidge Corner Theatre and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science on Screen grant to pair films with expert presentations on science and technology. In Walter: Lessons from the World’s Oldest People, filmmakers Hunter Weeks and Sarah Hall visit people 110 years or older. Georgia’s own Besse Cooper, the World’s Oldest Person, is one of the people they meet. Dr. Leonard Poon, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at UGA’s Institute of Gerontology, will discuss “Understanding Well-Being in the Oldest Old,” while filmmaker Weeks, Guinness gerontology consultant, Robert Young, and Cooper’s family will join in a post-film Q&A. (Ciné)
THE WIND RISES (PG) Hayao Miyazaki has threatened that this will be his final film. We will see. Fortunately, we will also see The Wind Rises, a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Hirokoshi, who designed the aircraft flown by the Empire of Japan in World War II. The English voice cast is as good as usual. Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices Jiro and is joined by Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, Mandy Patinkin and Stanley Tucci.
WINTER’S TALE (PG-13)Apparently, Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, Winter’s Tale, is considered a pretty big work of recent American fiction. You don’t come away from Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s directorial debut with that impression. Too much must not translate from the page to the screen in this saccharine two-hour distillation of that nearly 700 page novel; it’s as if Goldsman adapted the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book version. This fantastical romance about an immortal burglar, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) and his magical white horse, Athansor, battling demons led by Russell Crowe (he definitely does his best work in period pieces) will certainly draw in viewers without quite delivering all it promises. In her first major post-“Downton” role, Jessica Brown Findlay is lovely as Beverly Penn, the love of Peter’s life who dies too young because someone so special cannot survive. Goldsman has crafted a beautiful film in his first outing, and Winter’s Tale might age well if the right audience discovers it. (One wonders whether or not the novel’s fans will embrace the film.) Mature fantasy is a tough sell to literate adult moviegoers; Winter’s Tale is exactly the so-so film I am afraid will be made from American Gods.