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Insurgent
Kate Winslet prepares a torturous test for Shailene Woodley in Insurgent.

Example No. 54,903,812 of the movie industry’s glass ceiling: While Hollywood is coming around at a snail’s pace to the idea that a fantasy-adventure blockbuster franchise can still make giant piles of money if the main character is a girl, such series are still attracting lesser talent behind the camera. Look at the directors of the girl-centric Twilight saga, The Hunger Games, and now the Divergent series and compare their bodies of work to the ones who have worked over at the boys’ club at Marvel, and you’ll see it’s the latter who are more accomplished. That talent gap at the helm is the main reason why the Marvel movies have generally been of higher quality.

You can argue that this has more to do with economics than sexism — Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate, which together have produced all three of the girls’ YA franchises, are relatively small studios that have less cash to throw at offscreen talent than Marvel/Disney. Then again, those smaller outfits own those properties because the big studios wouldn’t take a chance on movies driven by girls. It’s the majors’ loss, but it’s ours, too, because we could have had better versions of those films. In particular we could have used a better version of the Divergent sequel.

Insurgent picks up a few days after the events of Divergent, with Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and her boyfriend/mentor Four (Theo James) on the run after the Priors’ parents and almost the whole Abnegation faction were killed by the Erudite faction’s leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Blaming the massacre on Divergents like Tris, Jeanine is now using it as an excuse to hunt them all down. Our heroes wind up taking refuge among society’s outcasts, the people without homes or factions whose leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts) just happens to be Four’s estranged mother.

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I deliberately avoided the Veronica Roth novel this time out. I had had enough of the author’s weak prose in the first book, and I wanted to be surprised by the movie’s plot developments. On a couple of occasions, I was. There’s a neat little scene when Four maneuvers the Candor faction leader (Daniel Dae Kim) into helping Tris by using the faction’s own philosophy of prizing truth above everything. Miles Teller has definitively settled into his slimy role as a turncoat who will betray anyone if he sees an advantage, playing the part for some badly needed gleeful humor. The best thing here is Watts, sporting brown hair and a dry wit and making Evelyn the most fascinating figure in the series so far, a revolutionary who may be hiding a personal agenda. A chilling bit at the very end of the film makes Four’s mistrust of his mom suddenly seem well-founded — potentially Evelyn could be a far more dangerous villain than Jeanine.

That said, there’s much more that doesn’t work here than does. New director Robert Schwentke (Red, but on the other hand, Flightplan) takes the location out of the original’s Chicago, and you do miss the sense of place that Divergent offered. He does an acceptable job with the action, but there isn’t enough of it here. The emotional fulcrum is supposed to be the relationship between Tris and Four, and while Woodley continues to do alert and sensitive work as the heroine, the scenes between her and James turn talky and arid. It’s particularly frustrating because in her other films, she had better romantic chemistry with two of her male co-stars here (Teller in The Spectacular Now, Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars). On other fronts, Octavia Spencer is sorely overqualified for what she’s given to do here as the head of the Amity faction, and I can only hope she plays a bigger role in the upcoming installment. And the earth-shattering revelation here turns out to be the exact same one as in last fall’s dystopian YA film The Maze Runner. I am so not impressed.

Insurgent isn’t a good movie by any stretch, yet I’m strangely grateful for its existence and the fact that it stands to make as much money as it does, because its success exposes an audience that mainstream Hollywood has continued to ignore. I’m hoping it will pave the way for women to have a greater part in these tentpole films. If Marvel can make a good movie out of Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s no reason why any of these girl blockbusters can’t be equally entertaining. Maybe progress will arrive as soon as this summer with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, which stars a girl, or perhaps with next year’s all-female Ghostbusters movie. It can’t come soon enough.

[box_info]Insurgent
Starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback, based on Veronica Roth’s novel. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]

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