The week in movies: ‘Divergent,’ ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ and more

So is “Divergent” the new “Hunger Games”? Or “Twilight”? Or even “Harry Potter”?

Probably not.

Not because it’s bad but because it’s not bad … but not great either. It’s middling, as so many movies based on the first book of a series tend to be.

“Divergent” is derived from a set of three books by Veronica Roth which have been riding the young-adult book charts for the past few years. This is the first in what promises to be a three or four-film series (since final books inevitably engender the fear in producers that they haven’t wrung the very last penny out of their literary cash machine, leading to the splitting of the final book into two final films).

Like most of these series, “Divergent” is about the battle between new and old, between youth and age, between the future and the past. This story is also set in a dystopic future, one in which the remnants of Chicago is now the home for a walled-off society, ruled by factions.

That’s Roth’s contribution here, though it’s hardly a new idea: the idea that each of us can be classified by a defining personality trait, an idea upon which this society is constructed. The choices in Roth’s version are: smart, friendly, candid, brave or self-sacrificing. Each of those traits has a job in the society as a whole and each faction helps keep the others in balance.

When they turn 16, kids are given a psychological test to determine which faction they belong to. At a choosing ceremony (sort of like the sorting hat in the Harry Potter books), the teens can choose a faction for themselves. The story’s central character, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), has an inconclusive test – she seems to be a little of each – and takes the opportunity to switch from Abnegation, the unselfish faction in which she was reared, to Dauntless, the risk-happy defenders of the society.

Like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” courses with the fever of revolution – of busting free from societal dictates and of fighting a corrupt system. But only on a PG-13 level. So while there are brutal fistfights and significant deaths, there’s a minimum of blood or sense of the physical extremes being portrayed.

Woodley is a charming young actress, but she’s not believable as a butt-kicking action babe who learns how to dish it out AND take it. Theo James, as her trainer, has a certain smoldering quality though this movie is so tame that even he barely takes his shirt off. The rest of the cast – including Kate Winslet as the icy queen-bee leader who gets in Beatrice’s face – seems to be marking time until the story really kicks in, which doesn’t happen until the final 20 minutes (out of almost 130 minutes).

I will admit to actually owning and wearing a T-shirt from “The Muppets Show,” the popular syndicated variety comedy show from the 1970s and 1980s. Three things to be said in my defense:

1)  It was the 1980s.

2) The T-shirt was a freebie from the syndication company, celebrating some anniversary of the show.

3) Hey, that show was funny.

And so, for my money, were most of the Muppets’ movies, right into the 1990s, when they did their own movie versions of “A Christmas Carol” and “Treasure Island.”

So I was pleased to see Jason Segel and the guys from Flight of the Conchords team up a couple of years ago to help revive the Muppets as a movie franchise, with 2011’s “The Muppets.” Jim Henson’s creations are back with a witty, engaging sequel, “Muppets Most Wanted,” which is just as fast, funny and entertaining as its predecessor.

Directed again by James Bobin, with a script by Bobin and Nicholas Stoller and songs by Conchords’ Bret McKenzie (with his partner, Jemaine Clement, as part of the supporting cast), “Muppets Most Wanted” is a spoof on caper movies, prison films and backstage show-biz tales. The plot, such as it is, involves an unscrupulous manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who takes charge of the reunited troupe and proposes a European tour. (He says his name is French and pronounced bod-GEE, with a hard ‘G.’)

But he’s got an ulterior motive: He is helping the world’s most dangerous frog, Constantine, escape from prison and switch places with Kermit, his exact double (except for a pesky beauty mark). Constantine and Dominic route the tour to enable a series of heists, culminating with Great Britain’s crown jewels. Kermit, meanwhile, has been arrested in Constantine’s place and thrown into a Russian gulag, run by a cold-hearted guard (Tina Fey).

The blend of funny, upbeat songs, a script that pumps one-liners nonstop and a sensibility smart enough to put Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo among Kermit’s Russian prison cohort makes “Muppets Most Wanted” a movie that will delight kids and tickle their parents.

As much as “Muppets Most Wanted” sparkles, Lars von Trier’s “Nyphomaniac: Vol. I” simply lays there, like a steaming pile of… well, something that steams in piles.

This review continues on my website.

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