Maggie (2015)


Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

(2015) Horror (Roadside Attractions) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer, Aiden Flowers, Carsen Flowers, Walter von Huene, Dana Gourrier, Amy Brassette, David Anthony Cole, Mattie Liptak, Liann Pattison, Maris Black, Jessy Hughes. Directed by Henry Hobson

sixdays2016-2

I have not been fortunate enough to raise a daughter. There is something very special about that father-daughter bond from what I’ve seen. While there are some dads who aren’t worth a counterfeit penny, most are quite willing to lay down their lives for their little girls if need be.

Maggie Vogel (Breslin) has a dad like that – Wade (Schwarzenegger) who owns a small farm in the Midwest. Disease has broken out – a pandemic that turns those that contract it into flesh-eating cannibals. They become mindless zombies, if you will. Maggie has been bitten by a zombie and now she has the disease. There is no cure. She will slowly die over a period of several months; the end is inexorable. She’s run away from home, to find herself in a hospital. That’s where Wade finds her.

There aren’t many options and none of them are real hopeful. She can be left in the hospital where she’ll be sent to quarantine, eventually to be given a very painful death. She can go home and stay there until she turns, in which case she’ll get a very painful death. Or she can go home and her father can end her existence in a more humane way. Wade chooses the last option.

Things are breaking down back at home. Wade’s second wife Caroline (Richardson) – Maggie’s mom passed when she was a little girl – and her two kids with Wade Bobby (A. Flowers) and Molly (C. Flowers) don’t really understand what’s going on, although Bobby sort of does. Eventually Caroline packs up the kids and sends them to live with an aunt, joining them herself. While she does understand what’s going on, she doesn’t get why Wade would put their two healthy children in harm’s way for the sake of a daughter who is dying. Wade doesn’t really have an answer for her that she understands.

Maggie hooks up with an old flame back at home, Trent (Romero) who also has the disease. He doesn’t want to go to quarantine – he’s heard that the conditions there are terrifying. He locks himself in his room and only Maggie can talk him out but the local sheriff (Griffin) and his mean-hearted deputy (Evermore) drag him away to quarantine anyway. Maggie knows that she doesn’t want a similar fate for herself.

But the signs are getting more unavoidable. She finds live maggots in her arm. When she cuts open a finger, she feels no pain – and oozes viscous black liquid instead of blood. She regularly vomits up horrifying liquids. She can feel her humanity slipping away. The question is, does Ray have the strength to let go of his daughter and spare her things even worse?

=Zombies are a hot commodity in terms of film and television, with The Walking Dead being the number one show on TV as this is written. However, Maggie really isn’t about zombies; they are barely part of the landscape here. We see little violence involving zombies, although on the few occasions where there is some it is sudden and horrifying. No, Maggie is about death and dying – and given the subject, yes the tone is bleak and grim.

Schwarzenegger is of course first and foremost an action hero but the man is not far from his 70th birthday and action roles don’t really suit him anymore. Given a chance to show his dramatic chops, Schwarzenegger actually shines and comes out with the best performance of his storied career. His Wade is gentle, honest and loyal but he is also very conflicted. He knows what’s best for his daughter, but finds it hard to even consider letting her go, even to the point of possibly letting her suffer. It makes the movie’s denouement even more poignant. I truly hope that Schwarzenegger gets more roles like this in the coming years; he can certainly handle them.

Breslin is already a known quality. She started out as a child actress and became one of the best juvenile actresses in history. As a young woman, she shows she can handle much more layered, complex roles. She has all the skills to be one of her generation’s most successful performers, with the kind of talent that wins Oscars and carries lead roles in important franchise films.

There are plenty of pastoral images that indicate a lifestyle that’s both rural and satisfying. Perhaps there are a few too many of those; at times the filmmaker seems a bit more in love with the style over the substance which is a bit of a shame because the substance here is pretty outstanding. Hobson has a background in making titles and graphic design and certainly his expertise shows here which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but hopefully for future films he’ll give a bit more emphasis to the story.

Oddly, the zombies here are some of the least effective ever seen onscreen. Even during the few attack scenes, they are never as menacing as they are in other presentations. The process of becoming a zombie is given more attention, which is proper and it IS fascinating, but we never get a sense of what the end result is. Becoming a zombie is bad here because it is in other movies for all we know. I would have preferred to see some graphic displays of why becoming a zombie is such a horrible fate. There is a whole lot of weeping over it though.

Also, for a zombie apocalypse, life is going on pretty well as it had before. We don’t get a sense of civilization breaking down whatsoever. But then again, why does it have to? An outbreak of zombie disease doesn’t have to signify an apocalypse, although the zombie inconvenience doesn’t sound nearly as interesting.

There is a lot to recommend this movie, particularly the acting (who’da thought) and the concept, but I think the movie could have been an absolute classic with surer hands at the helm. A little less rumination and a little more action would have benefitted the movie overall.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of his career if not THE best and Breslin is nearly as good.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The zombies aren’t used effectively and the film gets way too schmaltzy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of gore and some disturbing zombie-related images as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schwarzenegger, who really loved the script, did the movie without taking any sort of payment. The film crew also used the same home and surrounding property of the house in Looper.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some surprisingly lengthy interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film on the Blu-Ray edition.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4 million on a $4.5M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life After Beth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

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No Reservations


Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

(2007) Romance (Warner Brothers) Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Jenny Wade, Bob Balaban, Brian F. O’Byrne, Lily Rabe, Eric Silver, Arija Bareikis, John McMartin, Celia Weston, Zoe Kravitz, Matthew Rauch, Dearbhla Molloy, Stephanie Berry, Matt Servitto, Fulvio Cecere, Ako, Monica Trombetta  Directed by Scott Hicks

Films For Foodies

The great chefs are control freaks; they set high standards and expect all those who work for them to meet them. Some of them are laid-back about it, others are martinets who can rage, scream and bully their way to get what they want.

Kate Armstrong (Zeta-Jones) is among the latter sorts. The celebrity head chef at 22 Bleecker Street, one of New York’s trendiest and most outstanding restaurants, her prickly demeanor is tolerated by Paula (Clarkson), the owner, because Kate’s creations regularly win awards, coverage in foodie magazines and attract the hoi polloi to her restaurant. Kate’s personal life, what little she has of one, is strictly ordered as well, just the way she likes things in her restaurant.

Life has a way of bringing mess into the lives of even those who are meticulous about their circumstances; when her sister (Wade) dies suddenly, her niece Zoe (Breslin) is orphaned and Kate is named guardian to the little girl. Zoe is understandably distraught about her situation and acts out towards Kate who is thrust into a situation she is woefully unprepared for and never wanted in the first place.

Secondly, Paula has hired a new sous chef behind Kate’s back, which is irritating enough to the head chef, but that sous chef happens to be Nick Palmer (Eckhart), as boisterous and full of life as all get out. He loves to belt out opera in the kitchen and has a much more chaotic approach to cuisine. The two couldn’t be more oil and water. Naturally, they fall for each other.

In fact, just about everything about this movie is predictable, from the romance to the relationship between Kate and Zoe. We’ve seen both of those situations before; the can’t stand you/can’t live without you kind of love that grows via painful separations that force both parties to realize that they are better off together, and the sudden presence of a child in a driven career woman’s life that forces her to learn how to love and how to live. That’s a lot of cliches to pack in to a single movie, but they’re  all here.

Fortunately, the film is in the hands of the capable director Scott Hicks who has helmed some pretty sophisticated and acclaimed films (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedar). He also has some capable actors to work with. Balaban, who plays Kate’s shrink, has some of the best comic moments, listening to Kate’s remarks while sampling her sauces with a look of heavenly bliss on his face; some foodies just can’t hide their passion. Also Clarkson plays Paula with a delicate hand, never getting too hard or too soft. She is the ultimate Goldilocks here.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Zeta-Jones. I couldn’t tell you why; some of her performances can be a little bit hard-edged but when she allows herself to be a little vulnerable, she can act with the best of them. This is one of her finer performances, taking a character who is driven and obsessive and rather than making her bitchy, ends up making her worthy of admiration. That’s a tricky feat that even the great Meryl Streep had trouble with but Zeta-Jones pulls it off nicely here.

Hicks must really love food himself, or at least cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh must because the shots of the food being prepared and the presentation of said food is lovingly depicted and captured. You’ll never look at a plate of spaghetti the same way again after viewing this.

While I found Breslin’s performance to be a bit shrill, even she had moments that hooked me in, reminding me that she was one of the pre-eminent child actresses of all time, and continues to be a marvelous actress today as an adult. There is an oddball subplot concerning one of Kate’s neighbors, Sean, who babysits Zoe and appears to have a thing for Kate but nothing is done with it; the filmmakers could have easily had an offscreen neighbor do the child minding but for some reason chose to go this way. Methinks more of Sean was left on the cutting room floor than in the film.

This is based on a German film, Mostly Martha which I haven’t seen, although I understand it is much loved by many who have seen it and those who have seen both films typically state emphatically that the German version is much superior. I can’t speak to that, but if that film is better than this, then maybe I should make a point of finding it.. Despite the cliches and the flaws, the movie has a lot of heart and a lot of passion. It works as a dinner and a movie option, but also as a romantic evening option. Imagine that; a film that multitasks.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice work by Clarkson and Balaban.  Lovely food porn. Zeta-Jones takes a bitchy role and gives it some vulnerability.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chock full of cliches. Sean subplot goes nowhere..
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: First feature film appearance by Kravitz.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An episode of the Food Network’s Unwrapped centered around the film is included. Some of the Blu-Ray editions (those carrying the BD-Live feature) also includes an episode of Emeril Live on which Eckhart and Zeta-Jones both guested, with some of the food they are depicted cooking in the film made by Emeril Lagasse on the show.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $92.6M on a $28M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

Definitely, Maybe


Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher put in their bid to be the all-American couple.

Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher put in their bid to be the all-American couple.

(2008) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Banks, Derek Luke, Nestor Serrano, Kevin Corrigan, Liane Balaban, Robert Klein, Adam Ferrara, Annie Parisse, Daniel Eric Gold, Jaime Tirelli, Melissa McGregor, Alexi Gilmore, Marc Bonan, Dale Leigh, Orlagh Cassidy. Directed by Adam Brooks.

Love is complicated and sometimes will tear you to pieces no matter how well-intentioned. We can go in with full hearts and open to whatever love brings and still come out the other side desolated and destroyed. Still, we live in eternal hope that the next one will be the right one.

Will Hayes (Reynolds) should be at the top of the world. Successful, handsome, charming and articulate, he has a beautiful daughter whom he adores. He is also about to sign the papers that will make his divorce final. The day he is served with those papers, he goes to pick up his daughter Maya (Breslin) from school, only to find that today the class has been a course in sex education. He brings his daughter home to hear questions that can only be described as uncomfortable.

For her part, Maya is puzzled about this whole divorce thing. Did her dad ever love her mom and vice versa? How did they fall in love? Her dad has never been real forthcoming about his life before marriage and how he met her mom. Will can see that the information is obviously important to his daughter, so he relents and agrees to tell her about the three women he has been serious about in his life, but on his terms – the names and some of the facts will be changed to protect the innocent. Maya is delighted – she describes it as a love story mystery.

Flash back to 1992. Will is a young idealist from Wisconsin, freshly graduated from college and getting ready to travel to New York to work on the Clinton campaign. His sweetheart Emily (Banks) is not happy to see him going, but comforts herself in that he will be gone only for a few months before the two of them reunite. Before he leaves, she gives him a diary to give to her friend Summer (Weisz) who is a native New Yorker who was her roommate in college.

In the Big Apple, Will promptly discovers that many of his ideals are illusions and the harsh reality is that he is a very small fish in a very big pond. He is cheered up by his friends Russell (Luke), a fellow foot soldier and idealist, and April (Fisher) who is more of a mercenary. Things get exponentially worse when he finds out that Emily has cheated on him and wants to break things off.

Finally, he delivers the diary to Summer but not before reading some particularly steamy passages about a tryst between Emily and Summer. Summer is living with a cantankerous author, Hampton Roth (Kline) many years her senior but as she is an aspiring writer herself, it seems like a good career move. As Roth moves on to younger women, Summer and Will get together and begin to get serious, to the point that Will is ready to ask her to marry him…until she chooses her career over Will, costing him everything.

Broken and beaten down by life and love, Will rediscovers his old friend April whom he has always been attracted to, but as much as they obviously mean to each other, they can’t seem to get together. One of these failed relationships, however, has been given a second chance, only to end in further failure. Maya thinks she knows who her mother is of these three women. Did you figure it out too?

Up to that point I’d never been a particular fan of Ryan Reynolds, but I was actually impressed with his work here. He reminded me of another Ryan, Ryan O’Neal. He is sincere and captures the strengths and weaknesses of the character nicely, being at times charming and shallow, or sad and lonely. You wind up rooting for someone who has a lot of bad luck but makes some bad choices too. I liked Isla Fisher a lot as well – she reminded me quite a bit of Amy Adams and to a lesser extent, Zooey Deschanel. You immediately warmed to her the minute she shows up onscreen and quite frankly, she wipes the floor with Weisz and Banks both.

Derek Luke, so outstanding in Catch a Fire, is good enough in a small role but I think that he is destined for bigger things. I noticed him without him disrupting the flow of the movie, which is the sign of a good actor in a secondary role. And, of course, I am a huge Kevin Kline fan and I love seeing him even in the smallest supporting roles. Overall, the actors did a fine job.

Some great location work in New York makes the Big Apple a scene stealer as always. There are a number of terrific songs on the soundtrack. Most of the technical aspects are very solid, a good professional crew.

This is a very well-written, smart movie. The characters are believable and their dialogue sounds true. The main characters are flawed, but not so much that you don’t wind up rooting for them. As stated above, the acting performances are more than satisfactory. While this is definitely a chick flick, I found myself moved by it, particularly by Will’s own loneliness and sadness. Still, even though he isn’t happy, he’s a good enough soul to realize that he really does have it all, wrapped up in a neat 10-year-old package. Few of the characters turn out to be clichés, although one, sadly, does.

The ending unfortunately is very Hollywood and cliché. Part of me wanted a happy ending for the Will character, but it did make the movie less satisfying. Secondly, the character of Maya is another one of those precocious children smarter and wiser than their parents. Her role in the ending is what makes it extremely unsatisfactory; there is not a kid on the planet who would not only want their dad to fall in love with a woman other than their mother, but would actively assist in making it happen.

I was pretty impressed by it. It’s a lot smarter and a lot less cliché than your average romantic comedy. Ryan Reynolds does a particularly good job, as does Isla Fisher. Even Abigail Breslin, in a role that I found horribly cliché, delivers a nice performance. Perfect date movie fare for Valentine’s Day, or any romantic occasion.

WHY RENT THIS: Reynolds is pleasant and charming. Good chemistry with his various and sundry loves.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The character of Maya is cliche precocious kid. Nonsensical ending.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some sexual content as well as frank and suggestive dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Adam Brooks can be seen as one of the bookstore owners.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on maintaining the various time periods in the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55.5M on a $7M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon (Rent/Buy), iTunes (Rent/Buy), Vudu (Rent/Buy), Flixster (Rent/Buy), Target Ticket (Rent/Buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How I Met Your Mother
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Good Lie

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Ender’s Game


Asa Butterfield can't resist saying "Hi Mom!"

Asa Butterfield can’t resist saying “Hi Mom!”

(2013) Science Fiction (Summit) Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Nonso Anozie, Moises Arias, Stevie Ray Dillmore, Andrea Powell, Conor Carroll, Aramis Knight, Brandon Soo Hoo, Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak, Suraj Partha, Khylin Rambo, Caleb Thaggard, Cameron Gaskins, Kyle Clements, Wendy Miklovic, Jasmine Kaur. Directed by Gavin Hood

How many gamers have heard their parents tell them that their endless hours spent at the console/computer/device killing aliens, driving race cars, battling monsters and wrestling WWE superstars was wasted time? How many times have they heard that they gained no useful skills in doing so?

Here’s a movie that has a contrary viewpoint. 50 years after a devastating invasion by the ant-like Formic, an alien race seeking to colonize the Earth, the military knows that we as a species survived by the skin of our teeth. We never really developed a means of combating the swarming tactics of the aliens, unable to find any kind of pattern in their attacks. Only the bravery and sacrifice of one Mazer Rackham saved the human race.

Rather than trusting to established military tactics, the International Fleet has determined that the best way to combat an inevitable future invasion is to attack the home world of the Formic but not under the command of one of their own. Instead, they are taking the best and the brightest children and exposing them to strategy and tactics. The most ruthless of these are put into battle school and those with the most consistent record of victories are sent to command school. Only the very best of these will one day command that invasion.

Ender Wiggin (Butterfield) is a scrawny kid with a brilliant tactical mind. Disliked for his cold, intellectual demeanor (and a smug arrogance to be sure), he is constantly bullied by bigger kids but he is not only able to defend himself, he does so in such a way that precludes future bullying. This captures the attention of Colonel Graff (Ford) who promotes Ender to battle school. While Ender’s parents fret, Ender’s brother Peter (Pinchak) shows frustration that it isn’t him going further in the program while his compassionate sister Valentine (Breslin) tries to protect her little brother.

Ender falls under the command of the small but tough Bonzo (Arias) who is as ambitious as they come and doesn’t want a newbie ruining his chances at command school. Sergeant Dap (Anozie) doesn’t think much of Ender but grudgingly learns to respect him. Only Petra (Steinfeld), Alai (Partha) and Bean (Knight) believe in Ender while gruff Colonel Graff watches his progress with approval. Only Major Anderson (Davis), the school psychologist, worries about Ender the boy. “When it’s over, what will be left of the boy?” she wonders while the pragmatic Graff replies “What does it matter if there’s nothing left at all?”

Time is running out; Ender is the last hope of the military in their all-out war for survival against the relentless, implacable Formic. But Ender has reservations about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Can the boy become the man who will save the human race?

The movie is based on the first book of the Ender series by Orson Scott Card. Spanning a dozen books and at least as many short stories, this is clearly being looked at as a franchise for the studio which is lacking one now that the Twilight series is over. While the book wasn’t specifically aimed at the young adult market which Hollywood seems to drool over these days, it certainly has found a foothold among them.

The effects range from pretty good to spectacular which makes sense since Digital Domain, one of Hollywood’s premiere effects outfits, is aboard not just as an effects studio but also as a producer. Of particular note are the battle room sequences. Think of it as zero-G laser tag and while not quite up to the level of what we see in Gravity it is at least as technically competent and a whole lot of fun.

It’s always a good thing to see Harrison Ford onscreen and here he is the gruff, pragmatic (and some would argue heartless) military man who is balancing the survival of the human race with the needs of a little boy. The Colonel’s humanity occasionally shows through and one can only conclude that it is more Ford than the Colonel we are seeing in those moments. Graff is part Han Solo, part sensei but mostly military man and the latter characteristic wins through nearly every time.

Butterfield received criticism (although not from me) for being emotionless in Hugo but is less scintillating here than he was in that film. Ender is constantly battling his own rage throughout the film and we rarely get a sense of it from Butterfield, nor do we get a real sense of Ender’s genius. Most importantly, it isn’t until the coda that we get any sense of Ender’s humanity. Granted, this isn’t an easy role to play. There are no templates for it because nobody has ever gone through what Ender goes through in the film. Butterfield has to play it by ear and falls short. As much as it might pain me to say it, he might have benefitted from a director like Scorsese here – although Hood is a very good director who has coaxed amazing performances from less talented actors in the past.

I haven’t read the book in more than twenty years myself but I did like it back in the day and read several of the sequels (my son Jacob was also heavily into the Ender series as a teen). It seems to me that the movie stuck pretty well by the book although not exactly, but close enough that there hasn’t been much hue and cry from the devotees of the book. Considering that Card was a producer on the film might have something to do with it.

The movie falls short in generating excitement. In some ways it’s almost clinical and quite frankly it could have used a bit more emotion – not necessarily from the lead characters but simply in general. In a way, it could have used a little more Valentine and a little less Ender in that regard. Still, it’s impressive visually and while it doesn’t generate the kind of excitement that makes me eager for the series to continue as a franchise, I certainly would buy a ticket for the next film should one get made. Given the initial box office figures, that’s not a slam dunk.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific special effects. Harrison Ford.

REASONS TO STAY: Butterfield not quite up to snuff. Lacks passion.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence, some thematic elements and a fairly nightmare-inducing monster.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the battle room zero-g scenes, the actors had to attend Space Camp but also got special instructions from Cirque du Soleil performers regarding the choreography. Special devices had to be invented in order to give the actors full range of motion during the physically demanding scenes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Last Vegas

New Releases for the Week of November 1, 2013


Enders Game

ENDER’S GAME

(Summit) Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Nonso Anozie, Brandon Soo Hoo, Moises Arias. Directed by Gavin Hood

After barely surviving a vicious alien invasion, humanity’s future rests on the shoulders of a little boy named Ender. Alone out of all the candidates for Battle School, he shows the most potential to lead humanity to victory against the Formic. However, the aliens are returning and time is running out. Ready or not, Ender must lead the forces of humanity against a formidable foe and impossible odds. Is he up to the challenge?

See the trailer, promos, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material)

12 Years a Slave

(Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt. This is the true story of an African-American born a free man in New York City. In 1841, Solomon Northup was a respected violinist who traveled around North America performing recitals, but one night he is betrayed, drugged and transported to New Orleans where he is sold as a slave. His struggle to escape and return home to his wife and children became the stuff of legend.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical True Life Drama

Rating: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)

About Time

(Universal) Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan. At first skeptical, a young man discovers that he has indeed inherited the family gift to be able to travel back to any moment in his life and relive it. He uses his gift to woo a comely young woman and to make his life better but eventually learns that time travel cannot cure everything and that there is a price to pay for every gift. This is opening at the Regal Winter Park Village only at present in the Orlando area but will expand to most theaters on November 8.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Fantasy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Free Birds

(Relativity) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei. A somewhat delusional militant turkey recruits the very unwilling Thanksgiving turkey presidential pardon for a mission back in time. Their destination: the very first Thanksgiving. Their mission: to substitute some other meat for turkey. Good luck with that.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some action/peril and rude humor)

Krrish 3

(Filmkraft) Hrithik Roshan, Priyanka Chopra, Vivek Oberoi, Kangna Ranaut. An Indian superhero must battle an evil scientist and the mutant creatures he has created to save the world from a hostile takeover.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Last Vegas

(CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline. Four childhood friends, now edging somewhat reluctantly from middle age to old age, decide to head to Sin City to celebrate the impending wedding of the last hold-out to bachelorhood among them. While they’ve changed, so has Vegas baby and once these four hit the Strip, neither will be the same.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)

Man of Tai Chi

(Radius) Keanu Reeves, Tiger Hu Chen, Karen Mok, Iko Uwais. A young martial artist studies Tai Chi to improve his spiritual self but an unscrupulous promoter on the underground fight circuit in Hong Kong ropes him into that lucrative field. As the matches grow more intense, the young fighter turns his back on the precepts he once held dear and his will to live must carry him through this crisis.

See the trailer and a link to stream the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Martial Arts

Rating: R (for violence) 

Skinwalker Ranch

(Deep Studios) Jon Gries, Kyle Davis, Erin Cahill, Devin McGinn. Strange goings-on at an isolated ranch and the literal disappearance of the ranchers 8-year-old son garner media attention. A year afterwards, a security firm sends an investigative team to look into what really happened. What they discover is much more than anyone could have imagined.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror

Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Underdogs

(Media Services) D.B. Sweeney, William Mapother, Melora Walters, Natalie Imbruglia. A perennially underachieving Ohio high school football team gets a new coach, a new attitude and a new lease on life. However, they still have to play their crosstown rival, a traditional powerhouse, in order to make that move to the next level.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: PG (for some language) 

New Releases for the Week of March 15, 2013


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE

(New Line) Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett, David Copperfield. Directed by Don Scardino

A duo of superstar Vegas magicians rule the strip with iron fists; publically they’re the best of friends while privately they can’t stand each other. However, when competition in the form of a cocky street magician whose outrageous stunts puts their illusions to shame threaten to derail their reign, the two must put aside their differences while the incredible Burt Wonderstone gets in touch with that which made him love magic in the first place – that is, if his ego hasn’t crushed it forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language)

The Call

(Tri-Star) Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Imperioli. A 911 operator is shattered by the worst experience someone in that profession can have – to listen to a caller die due to their own mistake, in her case at the hands of a brutal serial killer. When she receives a call from a panicked teen calling on a disposable cell phone from the trunk of a car where her kidnapper has stored her, she soon realizes that the kidnapper is the same serial killer. It will be a race against the clock if the operator is going to be able to save the killer’s latest prey.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R  (for violence, disturbing content and some language)

The Gatekeepers

(Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon. The Shin Bet is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA; their covert operations have been at the center of Israel’s policies towards defense. Six former heads of the agency are interviewed for the first time anywhere regarding their roles in the decision-making process and implementing their countries policies towards terrorism foreign and domestic.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for violent content including disturbing images)

Stoker

(Fox Searchlight) Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney. When a young girl’s father dies in a car accident, her uncle that she never knew she had comes to live with her and her emotionally unstable mother. The girl begins to suspect that the uncle is much more than he claims to be and may have ulterior motives for his presence. This only serves to deepen her infatuation with him, leading her down a deadly dangerous path.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing violent and sexual content)