Danny Collins – Film Review

Collins poster

The following is based on a kind of true story a little bit.   How could you not love a film that begins with titles like that?  It’s all in the tone.  Danny Collins may be hyped as a real event but those titles basically tell it all.

True, there really was a singer who nine years ago discovered a letter that was sent to him forty years earlier by John Lennon – the singer’s real name is Steve Tilston – and, true, it advised the singer to basically keep it real and be true to himself, and even better, the iconic Beatle really did leave his personal phone number at the bottom.  All of that really happened; that’s the little bit mentioned in the opening titles.  It’s everything that follows that’s fictional, and as much fun as it is, you don’t buy any of it for a second.  Danny Collins is really a wish-fulfillment, comic fairy tale that’s a lot of fun as long as you get passed the idea that Al Pacino could ever be a pop star.

Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is an aging rock singer who creatively peaked years ago.  The popularity is still there – Collins is still one of the most famous names of the American pop/rock industry, plus he’s still touring – but his voice is shot.  Whether he was truly any good we’ll never know; we never get to hear him in earlier days, but that doesn’t matter.  All that’s important is that the man was BIG and continues to be so.  His fans, all of whom have aged with him, continue to buy tickets and continue to cry out for another chorus of his biggest Sweet Caroline type sing-a-long hit, Hey, Baby Doll.  “If what I just did qualified as singing,” Collins tells his long-suffering manager Frank (Christopher Plummer), “I’d be great.”

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Then his manager surprises his client/friend with a letter that somehow had been missing since 1971 and has now surfaced.  It’s from John Lennon and it tells the then young singer to “… Be true to yourself; be true to your music, love John.”  It even has Lennon’s number at the bottom with instructions to call if the young singer wanted to discuss more.   In disbelief, Collins reads the letter and from that moment, everything changes.  What would have happened had Collins called Lennon back in ’71?  What would they have talked about?  Would life have taken a different turn?   Would he have found the commercial success he’s enjoyed along with all the other tolerated rock star indulgences or would his music and his career, not to mention his basic values, have all gone in a different direction?  Collins obsesses over the what ifs then makes a decision.

“I’m done,” he suddenly announces to his stunned manager as he cancels the rest of the tour.  “I’ll never be forced to sing those songs again.”  Considering we actually saw him growl through Hey, Baby Doll at a sold out concert at The Greek, the decision to quit is probably best for all of us.  Then he hits the road solo to New Jersey in an attempt to make some serious amends with his estranged son and the family he’s never known.  But making amends is not going to be easy.  “I’ve spent my whole life trying to be the man you aren’t,” his disapproving son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale) tells his rock star father.  “And I’m exhausted.”

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The real fun behind Danny Collins is watching the cast.  The story does nothing.  Not only do you not believe Pacino as a rock star, the idea that this guy who has lived out every drug-induced rock ‘n roll fantasy throughout his decadent career – he can hardly remember any of it – would suddenly drop everything because of a few basic words of encouragement, even if they came from John Lennon, is really a tough sell.  But when you think of it, the nonsense plot is also part of the fun.

Cannavale is just right as your average, New Jersey guy struggling to make everyday work for him and his wife, Samantha (a terrific Jennifer Garner).  Christopher Plummer makes an unlikely rock star manager, but like everything else in the film, you go along with it for the simple fact that it’s always good when you get that rare chance to enjoy something new from Christopher Plummer.  But it’s the scenes between Pacino and Annette Benning that really work.

Benning plays a perpetually upbeat, hotel manager; the same New Jersey hotel where Danny Collins suddenly turns up and wants a room for an indefinite period.  The funny exchange at the check-in between a surprised young clerk (Melissa Benoist from TV’s Glee), Mary (Benning) and the unavoidably recognizable rock star is just how you imagine such a conversation would go.  “I know who you are,” a smiling hotel manager tells the colorful celebrity.

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Part of Mary’s appeal is that she can’t help but always be honest with her grounded opinions.  In taste and style, she’s the polar opposite to Collins.  When Collins asks her how does he look – he’s in his seventies in the middle of New Jersey with a fake tan, an earring, an open neck shirt unbuttoned down to his podgy gut revealing a hairy chest, a large crucifix hanging from his neck all while sporting a shiny, blue suit with a pink handkerchief protruding from his top pocket – all Mary can do is laugh at him and say, “You look ridiculous.” It’s not quite what he expected.

Director Dan Fogelman’s funny script is peppered throughout by John Lennon’s solo hits that comment on the fading scene.  When Collins reads that forty-year old letter, Lennon’s Imagine plays on the soundtrack; when the initial meeting between rock star and estranged son goes badly, Lennon’s Cold Turkey is introduced, and when Collins celebrates at a surprise birthday party by boozing and snorting coke, Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Thru The Night underlines the action.

The cynic may raise an eyebrow and sigh throughout, but don’t be that cynic.  You’ll just spoil it.  Here’s what you do: Take nothing seriously; enjoy the preposterous notion of Pacino as a rock star, take pleasure in Jennifer Garner’s lecture to Collins telling him what a great daughter-in-law he’s missed out on, and savor every moment that Annette Benning is on screen.  Do that and you’ll be fine.

 MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  106 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)


Posted in Film

It Follows – Film Review

it poster

It takes less than a minute for something to happen.  We’re in a nice neighborhood.  It’s daytime, nothing much going on.  Autumn leaves have fallen.  A woman on the other side of the road is adjusting something in the trunk of her car.  That’s it.  Nothing else happening.

Suddenly, the front door of a nearby house opens.  Out rushes a young woman in shorts and high-heels.  She’s frantic.  She runs into the middle of the road, the clickity-clack of her heels on the concrete surface breaking the calming silence.  She frantically runs in one direction, turns around, then runs in the other.  Something’s chasing her.   We don’t know what – we can’t see what the girl can see – but there’s something there.  “You okay, honey?” asks the woman unloading her trunk.  The girl keeps running.  Whatever it is that’s chasing the teenager is either invisible or something of the girl’s imagination; the woman by the car can’t see anything either.

Next we’re on a beach and the young girl is calling her parents from the water’s edge.  “Just know that I love you,” she sobs into the phone.  Cut to minutes later.  The teenager’s blood stained body remains motionless on the wet sand; her limbs snapped and twisted into shockingly unnatural positions.

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We don’t know what but something really nasty is happening to a small group of high-schoolers in a quiet, suburban Michigan neighborhood.  That’s the setup for the effective horror/thriller It Follows, a short, sharp film full of brooding atmosphere possessing the kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that can stretch only so far without something terrible occurring; there’s always that uncomfortable, ever-present danger of something suddenly snapping in your face.

With its pulsating synthesized score from composer Rich Vreeland, its widescreen cinematography from Mike Gioulakis that has you constantly exploring all corners in case you see something, and a pleasant, neighborhood fall setting, reminiscent of the street a screaming Jamie Lee Curtis ran from in Halloween, director David Robert Mitchell has intentionally recreated the look and feel of early John Carpenter.  There’s no pin-pointing the time frame; with gas-guzzlers, land lines and early TV sets that always appear to be showing cheesy black and white horror movies, it could possibly be the seventies, yet the teenagers are of today and so is the cell the girl at the beginning uses to call her parents.

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There’s a nightmare, slo-mo quality to everything – the feeling that there’s something there, always following you, and it won’t ever quit, is relentless – making you think that perhaps the best approach to its setting is to imagine you’re really watching someone’s dream from which there’s no awakening, and it’s filled with everything you’ve ever known or seen in a seventies horror movie.

There’s a minimum of dialog throughout, and no explanation.  Director Mitchell is more interested in presenting an unconventional bogeyman in constant pursuit, building atmosphere and showing what happens and its outcome.  It’s an exercise in style over reason.  In the way that one of those annoying chain letters on the Internet is sent with the promise that if you don’t pass it on, something bad will happen, so it is with the entity of It Follows.

The curse of having it pursue you  – whatever it is – is something passed on, given to you here not through an opened file on the Internet but through sex.  Whoever is currently connected to the thing can change its direction of pursuit by having sex with another person, thereby passing on the curse.  In the way that those seventies horrors always seemed to kill off the bad teenagers who were naughty enough to have unprotected, teenage intercourse when the adults were out of the house, It Follows makes it simple: in order to protect yourself, pass it on; have more sex.

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However, despite the setup, the film never quite fulfills its early promise.  Before its conclusion, you can see that It Follows is already falling apart.  There’s a sequence in the nearby public swimming baths that doesn’t make a lot of sense – if there was a plan to catch the supernatural thing by trapping it then electrocuting it in the water, it was a bad one poorly executed with no hope of succeeding – plus the somber, inconclusive fade out at the end is more of a ‘huh?’ moment than a satisfying close.

It Follows will scare, no doubt.  Despite the sense of disappointment that comes with the closing fizzle, the film remains intriguing, unsettling, and very uncomfortable.  Worst of all, by having an entity that can take on any form your mind projects – it might look like a friend, maybe an old relative; anyone – and giving it no motive other then the relentless pursuit of wanting to kill, It Follows succeeds in one respect: it really does feel like experiencing the ultimate nightmare.

 MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  94 Minutes   Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)


Posted in Film

Merchants of Doubt – Film Review

doubt poster

Based on a well-received and, by all accounts, a thoroughly researched, non-fiction book of the same name, Merchants of Doubt from director Robert Kenner is a truly fascinating documentary told with just a sly touch of humor that works in the film’s favor, especially when the message it’s illustrating is so incredibly sad and, to be honest, downright frustrating.

It’s all about those intentionally persuasive, smooth-talking devils who have taken on the role of presenting themselves as scientific authorities hired by corporations to go on TV and spread seeds of doubt.  It worked for years with the tobacco industry, why not for other industries?  A 1963 internal tobacco industry memo clearly states, “We are in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug,” yet in 1994 that same industry continued to publicly testify that nicotine was not addictive.  Of course, their world finally came crashing down with whistle-blowers and overwhelming scientific proof showing that tobacco is, indeed, a cancer causing agent that kills while possessing an addictive drug that keeps smokers wanting and buying more, but it took a heck of a long time to get there

Framed by the work of illusionist Jamy Ian Swiss, a performer whose knowledge of deceiving the eye with some amazing slight-of-hand card tricks is quite remarkable, the film explores the art and expertise of deception; how the focus of attention on practically anything can be manipulated to the point where you’re not quite sure what you saw or perhaps heard.  The stylish, opening credits display well-shot card tricks, culminating with a house of cards that, with one slight tug, easily comes crashing down.

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The center of the film’s focus is on climate change.  Once the greenhouse effect of global warming was measured to be a very real threat to the planet – CO2 spewed into the air is like putting a blanket around the planet, and it will stay there for a millennium – scientists assumed that people would put sensible measures into place.  But that didn’t happen.  Those in the fossil fuel industry whose profits would be most affected by any enforced changes realized it had a problem on its hands.  Science in its telling is complicated so it was easy for the industry to put doubt into people’s minds, even to the point where some slight-of-hand manipulation in the media created the notion that CO2 was actually good for us, the same way that for years the tobacco industry convinced many that a pack of Luckies was also good for us.

Throughout the documentary we see clips of opposing scientists on TV news continually disagreeing with any new research discovered supporting the realities of climate change, but a closer look at who these people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing makes the whole thing more insidious than you might have thought.   The film explains how certain experts we see in the documentary were always aggressively anti-communist.  They saw any moves towards regulation from the government as a clear step towards socialism, which they in turn truly believe will ultimately lead to communism.  By making themselves available for hire and getting considerably handsome sums of money from corporations within the fuel-fossil industry, they became television’s merchants of doubt; essentially paid lobbyists for the anti-global warming movement but presented as being fair and balanced.

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It’s interesting that practically all the media clips shown of various ‘experts’ explaining why we should basically ignore what the overwhelming majority of scientists say get their forum of intentional misinformation on Fox.  When it’s a CNN clip it’s back in the day when Glenn Beck had a show on Headline News or Rush Limbaugh when he had a late-night syndicated show.  The humor of the TV segments is complimented with brief moments from The Twilight Zone where characters talk of people living in some parallel world.

What makes all of this worse is the knowledge that most of these people are intelligent – they know only too well what they’re doing and saying – and that makes their actions and the way they intentionally sway public opinion to doubt anything heard from real experts all the more insidious.  It’s actually insulting how they feed abstract issues and create the illusion that scientists – those interested in neither politics nor profit, simply science – are somehow the liars and that in reality, everything is okay.

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When we see a misinformed but angry member of the public – one who has bought the whole idea that global warming is some kind of left-wing hoax – points fingers at a politician supporting the issue of climate change and declaring repeatedly, “You lie! You lie!” the CEO’s of the fuel-fossil industry must be having a ball.  You can just see them, sitting back, smiling, amused at how their sizeable investment in these dishonest but smooth talking spokesmen hustling the public is paying off.   Those declaring “You lie,” are being used.  They’re doing all the work for free.

It took almost fifty years to expose the lies spread to the public by the tobacco industry.  With climate change, the film tells us, we don’t have fifty years.  The truly sad reality is that those who should see a documentary like Merchants of Doubt are the very ones who will stay away and continue to believe what they’ve chosen to believe.  Perhaps the most telling moment comes when one of those merchants of doubt with impeccable credentials states on TV that over thirteen thousand fellow scientists have signed a certain paper declaring climate change a hoax.  On close examination of some of those signatures, the names on the document include people like a certain Dr. Michael J. Fox or a Dr. Gerri Halliwell.   Evidently overnight, The Spice Girls became expert scientists on global warming.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  96 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Seymour: an introduction – Film Review

Sey poster

“I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky.”  Those are the final words spoken at the fade out by musician/teacher Seymour Bernstein as he reflects back on his life in the surprising and thoroughly engaging documentary from actor turned filmmaker Ethan Hawke; Seymour: an introduction.

Seymour Bernstein is a classical pianist who at the age of fifty quit performing for three reasons: 1) he didn’t enjoy the commercial aspect; 2) nerves; and, 3) he wanted to create.  His life became more modest but as a teacher he thrived.  When explaining the importance of nerves before a performance, Seymour tells the story of Sarah Bernhardt and a fan who asked the famous French actress why she appeared so nervous before a performance.  “I never get nervous when going on stage,” the fan proudly declared.  “My dear,” responded the early film performer, “You will get nervous when you learn how to act.”

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Before making the documentary, Ethan Hawke was having problems.  As he puts it during the couple of minutes of screen time he allows himself, not only were nerves getting the better of him but so, too, was “…The superficiality of Hollywood excess.”  He was looking for something, and it was a chance meeting at a New York dinner party where he met Seymour Bernstein.  Hawke was struck by the gentle yet perceptive nature of the elderly man’s words and advice.  It was as though the classical pianist understood Hawke’s career and performance anxieties better than Hawke’s peers, and a friendship between the two men was formed.

The real essence of what we are resides in our talent,” Seymour tells us as we witness the pianist teaching young players in his apartment with infinite patience, calm and wisdom.  “The most important thing that music teachers can do for their pupils is to inspire and encourage an emotional response, not just for music but more importantly for all aspects of life.”

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The splendor of Ethan Hawke’s first film as a documentarian is how wonderfully well he captures the absolute ecstasy of playing and enjoying classical music.  Witnessing the respect Seymour receives from his pupils as they describe the emotional connect they have with the music when playing – something instilled in them by Seymour’s teaching – is a joy to both hear and see.  When a pupil excels during practice, Seymour tells her that her playing was a dream.  “That was better than mine,” he states to the young woman, then adds with a little unassuming humor, “You’re not allowed to play better than me.”

Seymour: an introduction can’t be thought of as a complete look at the man’s life even though we catch glimpses of early days illustrating the musician’s military service.  What the film achieves is that sense of craft, the magnificence of creation and, above all, the ability to equate and recognize life’s lessons buried in the astuteness of Seymour’s teaching.   “When you reach my age,” Seymour tells us, “You stop playing games.  You stop lying to people and you just say really what’s in your heart, and you find out that it’s the greatest compliment to someone when you really say the truth.”

The film itself is not necessarily a thing of beauty, but what the film conveys truly is.

 MPAA Rating:  PG    Length:  94 Minutes   Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Gunman – Film Review

Gun poster

Even though the film is based on an original novel, The Prone Guman by Jean-Patrick Manchette, there’s something overly familiar about the film version, now called simply The Gunman.  It’s full of moments you swear you’ve seen before but at the same time it’s difficult to pin point exactly where or when.

It’s 2006.  Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is a Special Force’s soldier on assignment in the Congo.  He’s there along with a small group of other ex-military types, and as far as we can tell, he’s up to no good.  After he’s given the order to assassinate the country’s Minister of Mining, which he does, Terrier is forced to flee the country, but not before he tells fellow trouble-making associate Felix (Javier Bardem) to look after the love of his life, Annie (Jasmine Trinca).  “You have my word,” Felix replies.

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It’s now eight years later and Terrier is doing his best to atone for some of the bad things he’s done. He’s returned to the Congo and is doing his bit for the country’s economy by assisting with the digging of its wells.  Even though his killing days are long behind him, there are others who never forget.  Terrier escapes an attack on his life by the skin of his teeth and knows he was specifically targeted.  Not only that, but on the flight out of the Congo to London, he realizes that the other men who were on his team back in ’06 are also being targeted.  By whom and why?  “We did some bad things,” Terrier states.

To add an extra level of issue that the oh-so serious Jim Terrier has to deal with, he’s now cursed with a serious health problem.  After a blackout episode and a series of brain scans, Terrier is told by the doctor that going forward, if he experiences any kind of trauma to the head, it’s over.  Terrier needs to rest.  “Take care of your mind,” the doctor prescribes.

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Of course, Terrier doesn’t.  Instead, he jets over to Spain and sets off a string of events involving the ex-military guys he used to work with, plenty of bad guys spraying bullets and a reunion with Annie who has now married Felix.  “We need to forget that project,” Felix tells Terrier, referring to what they did in 2006.  “It never happened.”   But it did, and the issues won’t go away.

The Gunman is Sean Penn’s assignment through and through.  He has a producing credit, a writer’s credit, and he stars.  Think of it as a project intentionally designed to propel Penn’s film career back into the mainstream in the same way that Liam Neeson has attained an unexpected second wind in recent years.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, plus Penn certainly looks good at the running, jumping and shooting – his harder than rock, muscular physique is here on display at every opportunity and tends to be the film’s best special effect – but that intense quality he was always famous for holds a necessary likeability factor back.

Had Terrier displayed the slightest of humor to help us warm towards him – anything: a glance, a slight twinkle of the eye, even your basic smile – The Gunman might have entertained more than it does, but by having Terrier behave with the kind of intensity he would have employed for a character-driven indie drama, there’s nothing to warm to, plus it doesn’t help that what he and his military cohorts were up to back in 2006 was actually bad stuff.  Even though you want the really bad guys to get their comeuppance, the supposed good guys aren’t all that good either.  You never really root for anyone, except maybe the innocent bystander, Annie, who has no clue what her friends and lovers have been up to either today or back in 2006.

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The violent action sequences are tight and well choreographed by director Pierre Morel while Flavio Maretinez Labiano’s widescreen cinematography fleshes out a richly, colorful, high-gloss look of an inviting continental Europe.  But there’s also the feeling of something dated about the whole affair.  Chases and their outcomes feel familiar, plus no one’s action surprises.  Whatever you initially thought about a person’s character trait turns out to be exactly what you thought.

Plus, even though the end credits tell us that Barcelona is an anti-bullfighting city and has not had a bullfight since 2011, the climax of the film cuts between the violence between Terrier and the bad guys and the violence in a Barcelona bullring.  The book upon which the movie is based has clearly made things a little more dated than we suspected.

 MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  115 Minutes   Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)


Posted in Film

Insurgent – Film Review

Insurg poster

There’s something misleading about the beginning.  At the end of the last Divergent film there was the suggestion that the central figures were finally heading towards the surrounding wall of the enclosed, crumbling city that was once Chicago before the war.  As the camera raced urgently towards the protective partition, the film gave the impression that after a fairly decent though unnecessarily bloated part one buildup we would finally discover what’s there on the other side.  But that’s not what happens.  Part Two backtracks revealing the real intention of that Part One fade out; it was just a tease like the hook before the beginning of a TV commercial break to keep you wanting more but with no intention of following through when you return.

In Part Two there’s a lot of busy action – all the cast are there; the same teenagers plus the same adults with the welcomed addition of a few new adult faces – but the conflicts, all the CGI chases and all the fights come across as simply more of the same without really forwarding the plot.  Towards the end, Insurgent may eventually take a few narrative steps forward but it’s basically a retread.  Now we hear that like all the Young Adult adventures before it – Harry Potter, The Twilight Series, The Hunger Games series – the third and final Divergent book will be stretched into two films.  What a surprise.  Maximizing profits may supersede the art, but in a perfect world it would have been better had the studio made one solid adventure out of the first two books and left the third as one complete adventure.  But that’s not going to happen.

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In Part Two, the characters are the same, but so too are the problems.  The feeling of familiarity born of previous teenage adventures set in a dystopian future remains.  Here’s the issue: there’s an unfortunate though very real sense of nothing original developing.  Certainly, there’s no ignoring the commercial success of author Veronica Roth who was only twenty-one and still at college when the first of her trilogy was published – a remarkable achievement – but the origins of the work all appear to be based on things seen before gussied up with different names and titles.  Plus, it’s still difficult to believe that this high-tech society has the ability and the resources to construct a massive wall surrounding the city yet it has never cleaned up the rubble of what was once Chicago.  It may look cinematically compelling to have characters walking around the futuristic remains of what was once a thriving metropolis, but this is a hundred years after the war.  Surely someone somewhere had considered the possibility of cleaning up the mess rather than always stepping over it.

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If there’s one saving grace to the second film it’s the adult characters.  Among all the attractive looking teenagers with their model good-looks muddied up it’s good to see older faces such as Kate Winslet, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q and a brief though important appearance from Janet McTeer.  Their presence adds weight to the proceedings.  “Divergents will destroy our society unless we destroy them first,” declares Jeanine the villain, a suitably ice-cold Winslet who was humiliated and defeated in the first film yet has learned nothing and continues being equally nasty and icy-cold in the second.

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As reported in this column when the first was released a year ago to the month, in a very short time, Shailene Woodley has impressed.  Her work in both The Spectacular Now with her Divergent co-star Miles Teller and The Fault in Our Stars with her other Divergent co-star Ansel Elgort was extraordinarily good, plus never forget the impact of her scenes opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.  But in the Divergent series it’s difficult to believe that this young performer of such slight build is capable of doing any of the things the script requires of her character.  With the right material in the right role, Woodley can excel, but here she’s wrong.  It’s not easy to buy the superficiality of any of it, not to mention that when Woodley’s character chops her long locks with a pair of scissors in a fractured mirror she suddenly emerges with one of the most expensive and stylish looking pixie cuts in the city.  On top of all her amazing mental and physical abilities, Beatrice, it turns out, is also an expert stylist.

Spectacular effects aside, Insurgent feels unnecessary.  There’s no impact.  With the exception of a couple of new plot twists, everything here was covered in the first.  After Potter, Twilight, and the padding that was the third Hunger Games film – didn’t it really feel more like a lengthy preamble to the final episode than a real film? – not to mention The Maze Runner and The Giver, watching Insurgent only reinforces the notion that the industry has really gone a  few Young Adult novels too far.  So far, it’s not good story-telling.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  119 Minutes   Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

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