TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Gunplay throughout, partial Nudity and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Lee Byung-Hun & J.K. Simmons

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I didn’t have high expectations for TERMINATOR: GENISYS. It would be an exaggeration to say that I’m a fan of the series. I appreciate the first TERMINATOR as a fun, cheesy piece of 80’s science fiction. I adore JUDGEMENT DAY and believe that it’s one of those rare perfect sequels that improves on its predecessor tenfold. In a perfect world, we would only have two TERMINATOR movies. Instead, the studio decided to cash in with RISE OF THE MACHINES, which is easily the worst movie in the franchise. In 2009, a throwaway effort was made in SALVATION which came off as a very flawed, slightly entertaining piece of fan fiction that somehow made it to the screen. It’s now July 2015 and the summer movie season keeps chugging along with a fifth TERMINATOR film. Where does GENISYS lie? It’s somewhere between the so-so SALVATION and the godawful RISE OF THE MACHINES.

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The year is 2029 and John Connor has led the resistance in the war against the machines to this final night. The war is coming to an end and Skynet has failed, but not before sending a Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (John Connor’s mother) in order to prevent John’s birth. When devoted soldier Kyle Reese volunteers to travel back to the 80’s to save Sarah, it seems like GENISYS might become an out-and-out remake of the first film, but things get a little wonky. Instead of finding the fragile waitress he expected, Reese discovers that he’s somehow wound up on an alternate timeline and Sarah is now a gun-totting bad-ass aided by a Terminator (whom she annoyingly named Pops) that saved her as a child. With various machines hunting them and new memories from this alternate timeline planted in his mind, Kyle discovers that there might be a way to stop Judgement Day from happening with the help of Sarah…and Pops (it pains me to type that name).

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There’s no beating around the bush on this one, GENISYS has a really stupid plot. However, I could sense that there were kernels of good ideas at its center. I dug the whole alternate timeline explanation and even a couple of areas that the film strays to during the second half. However, they’re not executed well. The movie throws the explanation of this being an alternate outcome thanks to events in the original TERMINATOR timeline and then doesn’t go on to explain certain other plot developments. I’m not a guy who needs every single detail spoon-fed to me, but there were a lot of plot holes in this script. In a groan-inducing moment, it becomes apparent that Skynet has changed from a 2003 computer virus (from the poorly aged third installment) to an app (which I’m sure will age just as horribly in a few years). I’ll refrain from spoilers (even though the marketing hasn’t) and just say that most of my major complaints with this screenplay come in the latter half of the film.

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Besides having a ridiculously convoluted story, GENISYS plays out somewhat like a TERMINATOR Greatest Hits album. There’s the T-800 from the original movie and call-backs to that first film. However, there’s also a T-1000 for some reason that’s never explained other than this movie needed a liquid-metal T-1000. Mercifully, the T-X (from the terrible third film) is nowhere to be seen. The special effects range depending on the scene. The liquid metal on the new T-1000 looks good and there are a couple of really enjoyable action sequences (a helicopter chase and a fight in a school bus stand out as my two favorite moments). This being said, the main villain (won’t reveal the spoiler in this review) looks very cheesy, especially in a final confrontation with Robo-Arnie. There’s also a battle sequence near the beginning that looks like PlayStation 2 graphics were distractingly inserted into the film too.

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The performances are hit-or-miss. Arnold Schwarzenegger nails his role as the Terminator (his aged appearance is explained in one of the more original twists in the script). He’s not to the degree that he was in JUDGEMENT DAY, but he’s far better than he was in RISE OF THE MACHINES. Arnie also delivers the only comic relief in the film that works aside from J.K. Simmons in the fun role of a baffled cop. Jason Clarke goes into over-the-top territory as John Connor. To me, Kyle Reese has always been a bland character, but it’s safe to say that Jai Courtney’s Reese is easily the blandest take we’ve seen on this already bland hero. In a surprising turn of events, Emilia Clarke is well cast as Sarah Connor. Though she can come off as too forced in moments, Clarke mostly owns the role of bad-ass heroine in a far more competent way that I was expecting.

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TERMINATOR: GENISYS is not the worst TERMINATOR movie. That disgraceful title still belongs to TERMINATOR 3, but GENISYS is the second-worst installment in the series. Everything in this movie is a mixed bag that has slightly more negative than positive. Some performances are enjoyable (Schwarzenegger, J.K. Simmons, Emilia Clarke), while others aren’t so good (Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke). A few of the effects look solid (those two aforementioned action scenes), while others look like cheap video game graphics. Finally, the script has interesting ideas and fails to execute them in a satisfying way that makes sense. TERMINATOR: GENISYS is a watchable, but useless fifth installment in a franchise that should have quit after the second film.

Grade: C-

THE WATER DIVINER (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for War Violence including some Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Russell Crowe

Written by: Andrew Anastasios & Andrew Knight

(based on the novel THE WATER DIVINER by Andrew Anastasios & Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios)

Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, James Fraser, Yilmaz Erdogan, Jai Courtney, Cem Yilmaz, Ryan Corr, Jacqueline McKenzie & Isabel Lucas

THE WATER DIVINER, based on a novel of the same name, marks Russell Crowe’s first film where he’s pulling double duty. Aside from starring as the main character, Crowe also directs this magical realism tale with an iffy eye behind the camera. There were clearly good intentions in every part of WATER DIVINER and the story is interesting, but the actual execution of the material makes for a mixed bag of a movie.

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World War I has come to a close and Joshua Connor, an Australian father, has lost all three sons as a result. His boys were all killed on a single day in the battle of Gallipoli and their deaths have taken a toll on Connor household. After his wife commits suicide, Joshua sets out to recover his sons’ bodies from the battlefield in order to give them a home burial. Connor’s journey takes him to foreign lands where he’s not exactly a welcome visitor and begins to give him a new lease on life when he’s given a reason to hope again.

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WATER DIVINER is a good-looking film and well acted for the most part. Russell Crowe plays Connor quite well as a man who is bound and determined to bring his (deceased) family together again. Olga Kurylenko is great as a hotel owner in Istanbul who takes a reluctant shine to Connor. There’s nothing of poor quality in the performances given by the entire cast, nor in the beautiful locations where this film was shot. However, technical flaws in post-production stick out like a sore thumb. WATER DIVINER loves using slow motion to an unhealthy degree. The (many) scenes in which it is employed don’t really need it to hammer home the tragedy inherent in a post-war society either. The slow effect itself looks cheap too as if Russell Crowe unnaturally slowed down the frame rate in a shoddy video program. There’s not a huge need for special effects in this film, but one scene with unconvincing CGI fire was distracting. Finally, the music in this film ranges from inspiring to downright schmaltzy. The worst of these moments comes in a TWILIGHT-esque montage of two people having a dialogue-free conversation while obvious romantic music booms over the scene.

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The technical flaws are the worst part of WATER DIVINER as the rest of the film is, at the very least, interesting. The ways in which the movie captures the devastated emotions on both sides of the war are entirely sincere. There’s a sense of true loss throughout the film as many people seem to forget that World War I was just as horrific as World War II. The globe had never seen a conflict this large break out before and massive losses were taken everywhere. Pieces of dialogue and subdued performances really hit these points home. On the lighter side of the story, Crowe and Kurylenko have believable chemistry together and though their romance was predictable, I enjoyed watching it play out. There is a definite magical realism side to this film, but it seems largely ignored, except for when it makes for a convenient plot device.

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WATER DIVINER is a so-so film as a whole, but that’s not because of its script. The story may skimp out on its magical realism a bit too much, but the film was compelling enough to keep me interested. The technical side of things is where I had problems. Cinematography, performances, and locations are all solid, but the post-production values, special effects and an overly annoying soundtrack really put a damper on the film. I can definitely see people loving THE WATER DIVINER as well as those saying that it’s mere a ego-driven project for Crowe. I fall somewhere in between. The story wasn’t perfect, but problems of a first-time director (even for an actor as experienced as Crowe) are definitely evident. WATER DIVINER is a middle-of-the-road movie for me. Not bad, but not necessarily good either.

Grade: C

INSURGENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action throughout, some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and brief Language

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman & Mark Bomback

(based on the novel INSURGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer & Ashley Judd

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT. That movie felt like an overly derivative mess that didn’t have a satisfying story, was filled with bland characters, and lowered even further by a cliché-ridden script. I really, truly hated DIVERGENT. So why am I reviewing INSURGENT? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and asked people on Facebook if they wanted me to keep covering the series until its conclusion. They said yes, so here I am. INSURGENT is slightly better than DIVERGENT. It’s shorter, doesn’t waste time with unnecessary set-up, and manages to smuggle in a couple of cool action scenes. However, new problems arise in really stupid plot developments and eye-rolling moments that give Edward and Bella some competition for most unconvincing couple of the new millennium.

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When last we left the land of DIVERGENT, Tris’s parents had been killed, the fabric of an unstable class system was in question, and our group of fugitive heroes had escaped from the clutches of the evil Jeanine. Tris, Four (Tris’s lover), Peter (Tris’s nemesis) and Caleb (Tris’s brother) are hiding out in peaceful territory, but soon find themselves being ruthlessly chased by Jeanine and the Dauntless. It turns out that Jeanine (or as someone has referred to her, Female President Snow) has recovered an important artifact that can only be opened by a powerful Divergent. As Tris’s few surviving loved ones are threatened, this teenage heroine discovers that she’s the only hope of opening this artifact. That’s pretty much the plot right there. There are action scenes and encounters with other Factions, but INSURGENT has about as much going on as DIVERGENT did plot-wise. It’s familiar and basic stuff that’s made to look overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.

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INSURGENT thankfully doesn’t bother giving us a flashback set-up sequence, but still packs in plenty of young-adult clichés all over the place. The characters remain hollow and the cast appears to know that they’ve moved on to bigger things since DIVERGENT. Shailene Woodley (FAULT IN OUR STARS) is a one-note action heroine as Tris and still manages to garner plenty unintentional laughter on occasion, but also looks bored with the material she’s been given. Ansel Elgort is a woeful coward stereotype and doesn’t get a significant amount of screen time. Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet both seem present only to pick up an easy paycheck, though Blanchett gives the best performance of the whole film. The biggest blow comes in Miles Teller as the lame comic relief character who mainly serves as a convenient trigger for two plot points. Teller has recently come off of the amazing WHIPLASH and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy for starring in this sequel.

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INSURGENT’s visuals look good and more focus is placed on the post-apocalyptic world this time around. The ideas are still dumb and overused, but watching a crumbling futuristic society was slightly more interesting than watching a teenage girl try to become a member of a club…I mean, Faction. Though there isn’t an abundance of them, INSURGENT has good action scenes. I was enjoying myself during a shoot-out, a well-done chase scene and simulations that are the best scenes in the film. This being said, there are still lots of unintentional laugh-out-loud bits. My favorite of which involved Four yelling at someone “My name is Four!” and walking away from a dinner table like a pouty brat who constantly whines about nobody understanding them. In all honesty, that might be a portion of the film’s target audience though.

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The bad doesn’t stop there as the script feels downright lazy. This was based on a novel and I understand that part of these story problems birth from unoriginal source material, but there’s no excuse for how poorly written some of this stuff is. For example, there’s a huge plot point hinging on what’s inside this artifact and this is frequently brought up throughout two hours. When it’s ultimately revealed, it’s very underwhelming (not that I was expecting much to begin with) and insulting to the viewer. The discovery also more than reminded me a little of a certain other young-adult adaptation that came out last September, where that reveal also felt like a cop-out. I rolled my eyes so much during INSURGENT that I bordered on a possible hazard of vision problems.

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Going off the last note of INSURGENT, I’m really not sure what else of this story needs to or can be told. This opinion stems partially from just how bad these first two movies have been, but also because I really don’t think there’s much more of a story left to tell (let alone for TWO more films!). Seeing as HUNGER GAMES is ending this year, the young-adult void has been momentarily filled by the DIVERGENT series and THE MAZE RUNNER, though I’m really looking forward to the upcoming I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. INSURGENT manages to be a miniscule hair above DIVERGENT in running time, but it’s just as convoluted and poorly executed as the first film. Now I’ll just go back to pretending that this series doesn’t exist until ALLEGIANT: Part 1 (of course!) hits next March.

Grade: D

I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action and Violence throughout

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Directed by: Stuart Beattie

Written by: Stuart Beattie

(based on the graphic novel I, FRANKENSTEIN by Kevin Grevioux)

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney & Kevin Grevioux

Mary Shelley’s classic gets the UNDERWORLD treatment in I, FRANKENSTEIN. The end result looks like an iffy idea somehow was granted a budget and thrown into wide theatrical release. It received bad publicity from critics, worse word-of-mouth from audiences, and was a domestic flop (it has barely made its money back from foreign markets). I, FRANKENSTEIN is damned with the fate of eventually airing on the Syfy Channel repeatedly and it deserves every second of that demise. However, there’s also a trashy sense of fun that comes with this territory. It’s ridiculous, ludicrous, stupid and yet a few elements of the film somehow managed to get something (however fleeting it may be) right. This is a bad movie, but it’s not a total failure, mainly due to a fast pace and a cool landscape.

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After an extremely condensed montage of Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (some details being removed so certain scenes can make sense later on), we witness Frankenstein’s creation burying his deceased master only to encounter a few demons in a graveyard. Frankenstein kills the demons and is captured by a band of gargoyles to discover that a war has been waging between the two for centuries. Reluctant to join with either side, the creature now named Adam (one of the few creative decisions that actually makes any sense) takes to the wilderness. Cut to a near future, Adam has returned to the city to hunt some demons hunting him. He finds himself caught right in between an escalating war between the hellish legion and the heavenly gargoyles. His life can be used as a weapon for either side. You do the math as to what happens next.

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The world of I, FRANKENSTEIN admittedly looks good. I’m not talking about the monster effects (those are downright laughable), but the setting itself is neat. I dug the atmosphere the movie had, even if it gets lost in a fray of chaotic fantasy-battles along the way. I’ve seen a lot worse than I, FRANKENSTEIN and enjoyed it on a bad B-movie level. It is very much still a bad B-movie though and suffers from a lot of problems. The main one being that the script here is a total disaster. Nothing makes much sense and it’s all kind of stitched together in the same sense that the title monster is. The actors don’t seem to be putting any effort into their performances. I can’t really fault them on this though given the material they’re working with. If I had to rank one cast member as the most entertaining to watch, it’s definitely Bill Nighy. He’s reprising his role as the evil vampire lord from the UNDERWORLD series, but is given the different title of Demon Prince and keeps the same hammy villain characteristics.

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Some classic horror stories were meant to be left in their original state and Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN appears to be one of them. The UNDERWORLD style doesn’t suit the wooden creature and the everything involving the heavenly war seems completely out-of-place. It’s unfortunate that the entire movie revolves around those ideas, because there might have been a cool “sequel” to the tale of science gone wrong if a few creative juices injected into the mix. Instead director/writer Stuart Beattie liberally rips off parts of VAN HELSING (an even worse monster mash than this flick), but that also might be attributed to the graphic novel is adapting.

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It seems pointless to talk about everything that’s wrong or mediocre with I, FRANKENSTEIN in lots of detail. At this point, most people already know if they even want to bother with this horror-action-fantasy. Judging from the box office numbers, not a whole lot of people did. Which all suits the film just fine. This belongs on Syfy Channel and I almost mean that as a bit of a back-handed compliment. It’s a guilty pleasure in some senses and not nearly as awful as it originally appeared. There’s something to be said for lowered expectations, but the movie’s pacing (only a 92-minute run time) seems as frantic to get everything over with as the audience watching the movie.

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I, FRANKENSTEIN is quite dumb, but it’s never boring or dull. As convoluted and stupid as the plot is, I was never infuriated by the film. I also had never imagined in my wildest dreams that Frankenstein’s monster would be seen on the big screen (or really anywhere) battling winged gargoyles through crumbling buildings or taking on a demon prince in a laboratory. Hey, I guess it exists. It’s a bad movie, but there’s some campy entertainment value to be seen in it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if it were on the Syfy Channel and I had friends over at the time, then I wouldn’t mind switching it on for a few good laughs. It’s that kind of movie. Take that as you will.

Grade: D+

DIVERGENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Neil Burger

Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor

(based on the novel DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth)

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

The vast well of material found in young adult fiction has been used a lot in the past few years. Since TWILIGHT was coming to a close and HARRY POTTER ended a decade-long reign at the box office, studios have been searching for the next big franchise to target the teenage demographic. THE HUNGER GAMES has become the new champion, but that isn’t stopping big budget attempts to start new film series out of any middle-school-oriented novel that comes out. Take for example the latest in this trend, DIVERGENT. Despite some shaky looking promotional material for this film, I was optimistic that it might be a good flick. After all, the book was so immensely popular that people had to be seeing something in the material. This all being said, DIVERGENT is a jumbled mess of scrambled parts from other (mostly more successful) plots that we’ve seen in the last few years.

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In a dystopian future, Chicago is the city left standing. The general population is separated into five separate groups (ala THE HUNGER GAMES) to keep the peace. Each citizen goes through a test that shows them which group best suits their personality. Tris is the teenage daughter in a family that belong to the vegan/hippie faction of society. Upon taking the test, it turns out that she’s a Divergent. This label is placed on individuals seen as a threats because they test positive for all five factions. Tris keeps this to herself and decides to join the law enforcement faction. This tests both her physical endurance and her mental strength. Bullied by some and facing the possibility of winding up factionless (e.g. homeless), Tris goes through rigorous training to find a place in her new faction. She also falls in love with Four (one of her trainers). The two do their best to avoid suspicion of Tris’s Divergent nature as an escalating war is on the horizon between factions.

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The ideas behind the plot of DIVERGENT aren’t bad ones. We’ve seen many of these clichéd scenarios in recent years (e.g. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, THE HOST, ENDER’S GAME, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, I AM NUMBER FOUR, etc.). It’s the construction of the whole affair that’s a convoluted mess. In THE HUNGER GAMES series, ENDER’S GAME, and (hell, even) THE HOST, the dystopian future was explored just enough to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer. In DIVERGENT, the script seems focused on the wrong elements of the story. This is a dystopian society, but there are still tattoo parlors in underground dwellings (I almost laughed out loud when I saw this). A lot of things don’t make any sense in this world recovering from a supposed apocalyptic war. To add insult to injury, a whole lot of sappy pop songs make up the soundtrack. What else can you expect from a film whose target demographic is teenage girls?

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I would equate a majority of DIVERGENT to the recent adaptation of ENDER’S GAME. Imagine if that film had been based purely on Ender’s training for the war and hadn’t had a satisfying payoff. That’s exactly what DIVERGENT does and why it fails at being compelling. You could have summed up half of the film in 10 or 20 minutes. Even a montage would have been more satisfying. The movie adaptation feels that every single stage of Tris’s training is essential to watch. This makes for an over-two-hour running time that feels far longer than it should in every possible way. This might make for a compelling read, but as a film there’s plenty of editing that was needed. It’s not interesting to watch a teenage girl train for most of a movie where far more exciting events felt glossed over in the final third.

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The less said about performances and character, the better. Some tired clichés are used in the fast-paced ridiculous climax of the film. In fact, one of them is used twice (with unintentionally hilarious results). There are also discussions of politics and a deeper meaning that isn’t nearly as deep as some people claim it is. The message of how dangerous conformity can be was hammered in frequently. There were about three speeches (two of which were delivered from a scenery chewing Kate Winslet) preaching about the evils of free will and human nature. Had it not been for the giggling overly excited teenage girls in the packed auditorium, I was tempted to yell at the screen “We get it! Be more subtle!” That is the kind of film DIVERGENT is though. It’s the kind of movie that has its target audience cheering during so-called fight scenes, clapping as the end credits roll, and one girl notably yelled “Yes!” when a predictable kiss came. It’s successful in that sense, but that doesn’t make it a good movie!

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Perhaps, I might be optimistic in INSURGENT (coming out next year, because Lionsgate is pumping this franchise without even knowing how successful it will wind up being). After all, I liked CATCHING FIRE a whole lot more than the first HUNGER GAMES. In the first 30 minutes, I thought that DIVERGENT was a decent enough flick rounding about a C+. By about an hour in, that grade had been lowered to a C-. By the time the melodramatic, downright terrible film concluded it was at a…

Grade: D

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