BrightBurn


With eyes all aglow.

(2019) Superhero Horror (Screen Gems) Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Abraham Clinkscales, Christian Finlayson, Jennifer Holland, Emmie Hunter, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Terence Rosemore, Gregory Alan Williams, Elizabeth Becka, Steve Agee, Michael Rooker, Steve Blackehart, Mike Dunston, Annie Humphrey. Directed by David Yarovesky

 

Superman was very much a product of his times, an alien baby adopted by human parents when his spaceship crashed to Earth. Possessed of nearly godlike powers, he uses those powers for good and upholding truth, justice and the American way. Even in the midst of a Depression, that seemed very plausible to most Americans, particularly in the Heartland where the Superman saga was initially set.

Nowadays, we see things differently. Take the same storyline – with Elizabeth Banks and David Denman taking the roles of Ma and Pa Kent – and even essentially the same location (Kansas) and set in in 2019 and what you have is not an inspiration but sheer terror. This kid is no way going to use his powers for good but instead to tear this country into pieces – small ones.

=It’s a nifty concept although there have been other dark superhero stories before, even horror tinged ones but almost all of them have been on the printed page. There are plenty of nods to the Superman mythos, from the alliteratively named Brandon Breyer (Dunn), the superhero to the red, yellow and blue color scheme that Brandon often wears to the superpowers themselves. At times it gets heavy handed.

The movie was produced by James Gunn who has been a frequent critic of the President and the movie, written by one of his brothers and a cousin, makes some political allusions that are hard to ignore, although some are a bit more tenuous than others. Certainly, those who are sensitive to such things will notice.

Banks actually does a terrific job as a cross between the aforementioned Ma Kent and Laurie Strode. She captures a mother’s undying need to believe in the best of her child even as her husband exclaims “He’s not our child! We found him in the woods!” which is accurate enough but misses the point completely, just like a man as I can hear many women thinking. Most of the rest of the cast is solid.

The ending is anti-climactic which isn’t surprising because the writers pretty much paint themselves into a corner which leads to predictability. I had high hopes for this one because of Gunn’s involvement but this doesn’t live up to the standards of most of his other films. It isn’t a bad movie but it’s disappointing given its pedigree.

REASONS TO SEE: Dunn is sufficiently creepy in this anti-Superman story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nice concept but a bit too heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some grisly images, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school scenes were shot in the same now-closed high school in Georgia where the middle and high school scenes were shot for the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superman: The Movie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Independence Day: Resurgence


Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

(2016) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Patrick St. Esprit, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Deobia Oparei, Nicolas Wright, Travis Tope, Chin Han, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Robert Loggia, John Storey, Joey King. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

“If you’ve seen one alien invasion, you’ve seen them all.” That may not be an aphorism in Hollywood, but it damn well should be. Ever since the original Independence Day back in 1996, there have been a plethora of invasion flicks of technologically superior aliens trying to rid our planet of its native population and steal its resources for themselves, which sounds an awful lot like a metaphor for colonialism if you ask me.

In Independence Day: Resurgence, twenty years have passed since the last alien invasion failed. Technology scavenged from fallen ships has pushed our own technology far ahead, allowing us to rebuild more quickly and even expand our presence with a modern defense station on the moon. Daniel Levinson (Goldblum) is now in charge of defensive strategies for the planet, which has united after nearly having been annihilated. He believes, like most of the planet’s leadership, that the aliens will be back and we’ve been preparing for twenty years for the inevitability of that fact.

Former President Whitmore (Pullman) is visited regularly by his daughter Patricia (Monroe) who is now an aide to current President Lanford (Ward). Like her dad, Patricia is an ex-fighter pilot. She’s also engaged to hotshot maverick fighter Jake Morrison (Hemsworth) who was exiled to the moon after clipping the wing of the fighter jet of golden boy Dylan Hiller (Usher), son of the late Stephen Hiller, the hero of the War of 1996. The three of them had been close friends but were now leading separate lives. Those lives are about to get a whole lot different.

Because the aliens are back and this time they’ve brought a Mothership the size of a continent. When it lands in the Atlantic Ocean, it covers the entire ocean. The aliens, aware of what happened to the last invasion, are mad as hell and want to finish us off, something having to do with taking the molten core of the planet and using it for fuel. Dr. Brakish Okun (Spiner), who’s been in a coma since his own close encounter with an alien, awakens and has some ideas for saving the Earth (although we get to see a little bit more of his hind end than we ever wanted to) but some of those may well have to wait for the sequel that will one day come. ID4 Part 3 anybody?

There are those in Hollywood who believe that the secret to a great sequel is more of what was in the original, and that sums up this film in a nutshell. Emmerich has, justly or unjustly, gotten a reputation of delivering spectaculars with plenty of destruction but not a lot of thought in the plot department. Here, again, there are things in the story that anyone with even basic knowledge of science will roll their eyes over. For one thing, something that big landing in the Atlantic would send tsunamis that would essentially drown every coast on that ocean, as well as send enough steam and vapor into the air to cause a nuclear winter. Having something that size impact the Earth might also have consequences in terms of knocking the planet off axis. Keep in mind that a much smaller object impacting the Earth may have caused an extinction level event. Even at reduced speeds, the Mothership would have killed half the population of the planet off in an instant just by landing here gently; and they wouldn’t need to land gently to get what they’re after. It would actually be in their best interests to deliberately knock the planet off its axis; it would make their task easier.

It is a hoot to see Goldblum, Pullman, Spiner and Hirsch back in roles that we identify them with, and all of them make the most of their return. Goldblum and Pullman get the lion’s share of time, but Spiner and Hirsch are effective in their supporting roles. The “new kids;” Hemsworth, Usher and Monroe mainly are a little flat; none of them individually or collectively can replace Smith who really made the first film more fun with his swagger and his comic timing, as well as his action chops. Smith reportedly asked for $50 million to sign on here; I’m wondering if it might not have been worth it for Fox to give him what he wanted.

The special effects are, as you can doubtlessly imagine, spectacular although like much that is in this film, much along the same lines as what you saw in ID4. Monuments and icons get destroyed. People flee in terror down streets choked with cars. Dogs get saved. Catchphrases get uttered. Hordes of fighter craft engage the enemy. And as an added attraction, we get to meet the alien Queen. Note to Ellen Ripley on that one; you’re going to need a bigger boat.

This is what I would consider decent summer entertainment; no more and no less. The script is a bit lame-brained but I don’t think anyone is expecting David Mamet here. The effects are more than equal to the task, but they don’t really set the bar any higher; once you blow up the White House (as they did in the first film) the sight of famous places getting destroyed doesn’t really do much for a savvy audience. In short, this is a time-waster that is perfect fodder for shutting your brain off, drinking an ice cold soda, stuffing your face with popcorn and candy and escaping the summer heat for a couple of hours.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive visuals as always. It’s a hoot to see Goldblum, Hirsch, Spiner and Pullman still at the top of their games.
REASONS TO STAY: Plot riddled with holes of logic and science. A bloated and often incomprehensible plot is not helped by the absence of Will Smith.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of destruction (they always go for the landmarks), plenty of violence, some profanity and a couple of disturbing alien images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seven actors reprised their roles from the original; the part of President Whitmore’s daughter Patricia was recast from Mae Whitman in the original to Maika Monroe here because Whitman isn’t conventionally pretty met with outrage on the Internet. Also, Will Smith (whose salary demands were rejected by the studio) appears as a portrait in the White House.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Free State of Jones

The 5th Wave


You can run but you can't hide from the critics.

You can run but you can’t hide from the critics.

(2016) Science Fiction (Columbia) Chloë Grace Moretz, Zackary Arthur, Alex Roe, Nick Robinson, Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Maika Monroe, Tony Revolori, Nadji Jeter, Flynn McHugh, Cade Canon Ball,  Alex MacNicoll, Michael Beasley, Justin Smith, Geoffrey Kennedy, Adora Dei, Parker Wierling, Terry Serpico, Charmin Lee, Gabriela Lopez, Bailey Ann Borders . Directed by J Blakeson

Sometimes you wonder why a film gets made. You look at the various reasons; a hit comic book franchise, a remake of a beloved classic, a box office star is attached, an Oscar-winning director is attached. Or maybe it’s part of a young adult fantasy series.

Once upon a time, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Harry Potter series, after all, smashed box office records but not only that, was well-written, meticulously crafted and the films that were made of the books were gorgeous and entertaining for audiences both young and old. But then came Twilight and it was basically a Harlequin romance aimed at tweens and their moms, and frankly wasn’t nearly as well-written as they were.

After that, a series of attempts to cash in on those two enormously popular franchises came with varying degrees of results, mostly bad. The formula that seemed to work best involved the Twilight tropes; a plucky young heroine, check. Forces supernatural or extraterrestrial arrayed against her, check. Foxy young hottie from home she has a mad crush on, check. Mysterious young hunk takes a hand in her life as protector and/or mentor, check. The heroine develops feelings for both young studs, check. Young tweens and teens and their moms take sides as to who would be the best man for the plucky young heroine, check.

Essentially, this is an alien invasion movie for tween girls, which isn’t of itself a bad thing, but the movie is so completely derivative of much better movies (and a few that are genuinely awful) that it’s impossible to really take it seriously. I haven’t read the Ben Yancey book (the first of a trilogy) that the film is based on, but I certainly hope that it is less hokey, less full of incredible lapses of logic, as this one is.

The premise is that young Cassie (Moretz), a resident of Dayton, Ohio, witnesses the arrival of a gigantic alien spacecraft. An electromagnetic pulse is sent out, rendering all electric devices inert. That was the first wave. The second wave was a series of natural disasters – earthquakes and tidal waves – that destroyed the coastal cities. The third wave was a biological plague that took out a number of the survivors, including Cassie’s mom (Siff). The fourth wave is the infiltration of the parasitical aliens on human hosts, putting the aliens among us in forms indistinguishable from our own. The fifth wave…well, that’s something you’ll find out if you watch this turkey.

Actually, the premise isn’t a bad one and the special effects are pretty nifty. Moretz is a fine actress and to her credit she puts in a solid performance in a role that essentially requires her to feel sorry for herself a third of the time, be paranoid a third of the time, and be mulishly determined to find her little brother (Arthur) who got separated from her at about the time their father (Livingston) is taken from them.

I don’t have a problem of cobbling elements from other stories and films together to make something new, but what’s here is so much like other films in the young adult genre that there seems to have been little creativity put in to making this something different or special; instead the focus seems to be on hitting all the notes that will supposedly bring tweens and their moms into the theaters in numbers that have made the Hunger Games, Twilight and Divergent series successful. That this hasn’t happened may be a sign that that audience which has been of late rather notoriously undiscerning about the movies they’ve chosen to throw their obsession to, may be a welcome sign that this demographic is starting to require a little more thought to bring them into the theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Moretz gives a game effort.
REASONS TO STAY: Derivative and hokey. Predictable young adult sci-fi pabulum. Gigantic holes in logic and reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and sci-fi destruction, along with some adult themes and a brief scene of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Reznik was male in the book; she is played by a nearly unrecognizable Maria Bello here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Pixels


Game over.

Game over.

(2015) Family Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Aykroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Rose Rollins. Directed by Chris Columbus

It’s hard to believe, but the 1980s are now three decades in the rear view. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out in the local video arcade, losing quarters at a terrifying rate and listening to Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club on the radio and, being me, looking like a reject from the 70s. My fashion sense has always been a decade out of whack.

But the sins of the 80s are catching up with us. The footage of a video game championship contest are among the clips that have been sent out by NASA in a probe into outer space, hoping to find intelligent life and re-assure them that we are peaceful and eager for friendship. Instead, the aliens (whom we never see) get the wrong idea; they believe these violent games to be a declaration of war and in their culture, they send out their warriors to face our warriors in a test of strength, only our warriors don’t have a clue what to do with these now-archaic video games.

It will be up to Brenner (Sandler), the runner-up in the contest and boyhood friend to President “Chewy” Cooper (James) to save the day, along with the winner of the contest, the arrogant Eddie (Dinklage) and  another childhood friend, Ludlow (Gad) who is a raging conspiracy theorist these days in tow. A fetching Marine Colonel, Violet Van Patton (Monaghan) serves as the military liaison with Brenner’s Arcaders team with Admiral Porter (Cox), the Pentagon Chief of Staff, who doesn’t think much of Brenner and his team. They ain’t much but they’re all we’ve got.

This is based on a short film which is far superior to the feature. There are no name actors in it and the special effects are much less detailed shall we say. Still, it’s far more entertaining than this flat and generally unfunny comedy which has been somewhat justifiably excoriated by the critics. However, I have to admit that the video game characters, the scenes in the arcade in the 80s and the general vibe induced a nice feeling of nostalgia in me, which I assume was the point. But unfortunately, I needed more and I assume, so did most of those who have been panning the film.

Certainly it helps to have had some connection to the 80s to enjoy the movie at all, but like a lot of Sandler films as of late, this just isn’t that funny. It’s almost all shtick, and that is the kind of humor that can be taken only in small doses, at least by me. Sandler, who had done some pretty funny movies early on, like Happy Gilmore for example, hasn’t really made me laugh for it feels like a decade or more. I don’t know why; he’s a genuinely funny guy, and he has a quick wit that comes out in talk shows. It just feels like he’s playing the same character over and over again, so much so that he has stopped caring about it. I can’t say for certain that it’s true but it sure feels that way watching him.

I like Kevin James too but he suffers from the same issues as Sandler; mostly, playing the same guy in generally unfunny comedies. There were some moments, like when he appears in front of a crowd that clearly hates him and he’s nothing but polite and almost ignorant of the hatred directed at him – now, that was funny. Some have said that he blends the girth of Christie, the timidity of McConnell, the ignorance of Perry, the reading issues of Dubya and the hair of Paul – essentially the perfect Republican presidential candidate. I don’t know if that was the filmmakers intention but the role certainly satirizes modern politics nicely – and subtly. I wish there was more going on like that.

Instead, we get the bombast of the space invaders, coming at us with Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. We get a life-size Q-Bert and gigantic Froggers hopping across traffic. I think it probably sounded impressive to the producers and the executives who greenlit this, but there really is no way to make the clunky graphics of the 80s come off as anything other than clunky graphics. And don’t get me started on the extraneous, completely unnecessary 3D.

Every summer there’s always one movie that just bites the big one, and this summer it appears to be this one. It gives me no joy to say this; I think Adam Sandler is a decent guy who really needs to make some different choices in movies. He needs to re-invent himself and I wish him luck at it; comebacks are notoriously hard in Hollywood but Sandler is still a talented guy. So are most of the people involved with this movie but this would have better been left a short.

REASONS TO GO: Video arcade nostalgia. Some of the more satirical stuff works.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very funny. Special effects are clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Akiyama plays Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami, the real Iwatami appears in the film. He didn’t want to play himself because he speaks no English.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super Mario Brothers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Primeval

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)


Beauty and the geek.

Beauty and the geek.

(2011) Sci-Fi Comedy (Focus) Julian Villagran, Michelle Jenner, Carlos Areces, Raul Cimas, Miguel Noguera. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Offshoring

You wake up after a night of partying and drinking. You’re in a strange bedroom. You don’t remember very much from the night before. The electricity is off. Giant spacecraft are hovering over the city. Don’t you hate when that happens?

Julio (Villagran) is in exactly this predicament. He finds himself in the apartment of Julia (Jenner), a woman so blindingly beautiful that he knows he has no right to score with this kind of woman. Neither of them can remember sealing the deal however, although there is evidence that they did – clothing scattered all over the room, that sort of thing.

While they’re trying to get their heads around the situation, with the city deserted and apparently evacuated while they slept off their epic bender, there’s a knock on the door; it’s Angel (Areces), a nosy neighbor who as it turns out has a crush on Julia. Further complicating things is the arrival of Carlos (Cimas) who is Julia’s ex – but maybe not so ex as she is leading the other two men to believe. He’s a survivalist and has plans on how to ride this situation out.

However, even Carlos didn’t come up with the scenario that all three men, incredibly jealous of the other two, would try to one-up each other to impress the girl, getting them pushed out of the apartment on the premise that maybe they are aliens in disguise. No doubt Julia will be taking eye-rolling to a new art form.

This is Vigalondo’s follow-up to the excellent Timecrimes which was his first feature. Like in that film, Vigalondo  takes genre tropes and turns them on their ear somewhat. In this film, we never see the aliens or learn why they are here. The action instead focuses on the three men trying to win the one woman. The alien invasion is more background noise than raison d’être.

Jenner is a nice find, remarkably beautiful and able to play both shallow and smart. She’s not mere eye candy here although the other men treat her character that way somewhat and her character is not above manipulating the other men. Villagran makes a fine non-heroic sort, a good guy who is in over his head.

There aren’t a lot of effects other than the magnificent alien ships which hover soundlessly in the Spanish sky. Vigalondo keeps the pace moving quickly and has a deft touch with the comedic aspects; for example, one of the men, locked out of the apartment, throws tennis balls in frustration at the open window which is a lot funnier than it sounds.

Keep in mind that the movie isn’t about the alien invasion so much, although there is kind of a Twilight Zone feel to the movie – or to be more accurate, an Outer Limits feel. It’s not about survival of the fittest. It’s a bit of a comedy, a bit sci-fi, a bit romance and a bit farce. Mostly, the movie is about what lengths men will go to in order to win a beautiful woman, and everyone knows the answer to that one – whatever it takes.

WHY RENT THIS: Uses a lot of genre cliches in unexpected ways. Jenner makes a wonderful lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Cantabria, a city in northern Spain.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Currently unavailable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Edge of Tomorrow


Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Franz Drameh, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Masayoshi Haneda, Noah Taylor, Terence Maynard, Lara Pulver, Madeline Mantock, Assly Zandry, Martin Hyder, Mairead McKinley, Andrew Neil, Beth Goddard, Anna Botting. Directed by Doug Liman

What a difference a day makes. Sometimes, a single day can make all the difference.

Major William Cage (Cruise) is one of those slick PR types that the army employs to sell war. This war, however, is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought; a mysterious race of aliens has invaded and quickly taken over Europe and Asia. The Mimics, as we call them, have withstood the might of our combined armies and now are poised to cross the ocean and take on the Americas. Much like another war half a century ago, the Americans know that they need to stop them in Europe or else have them hit us at full strength.

Cage is meeting up with Irish General Brigham (Gleeson) of the United Defense Force but the meeting doesn’t go well and the exasperated General orders Cage to the front. Cage balks at it and tries to BS his way out of it but ends up being tasered and sent to the front lines anyway. There, he meets up with MSgt Farrell (Paxton), a gung ho Kentuckian and the somewhat sullen J Company as they are put on massive troop transport helicopters and ferried over to Normandy. Unlike the previous invasion of that beach, the Mimics are expecting them and the invasion is disastrous. Cage is killed in the first five minutes.

Except he wakes up, on exactly the same day – right after he was tasered. And things unfold exactly the same. And he wakes up again. This time, however, he does things a little differently – and he survives longer, getting to meet Rita, the so-called Angel of Verdun who just about single-handedly won the only victory the UDF has had. Rita immediately realizes what’s going on and brings him to see Dr. Carter (Taylor) who knows more about the Mimics than just about anybody alive.

Just before he died, Cage had met up with a super-rare Mimic Alpha, and killed the damn thing, getting its blood all over him. That had somehow given Cage the same power the Mimics have or rather their Omega creature – the ability to re-set time. That’s why the Mimics are unstoppable; they know what humans are up to because they see it before resetting time, then react accordingly during the replay. However, now, it is us that has the advantage and if we can find the Omega and destroy it, the war will be ours. However, Cage has to figure a way to get off that beach.

Based on a Japanese manga called All You Need a Kill (a much better title although Da Queen prefers the ad tag line – “Live. Die. Repeat.” as a movie title better), astute moviegoers will recognize the plot conceit as being the same as Groundhog Day. However, the similarities are merely superficial. Whereas the older movie was a comedy in which Bill Murray wanted to get the girl, here Tom Cruise is out to save the world. And get the girl.

Liman, one of the most underrated and outstanding action directors out there (he made The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith among others), continues his fine work with the battle sequence here that recalls that of Saving Private Ryan only it isn’t nearly as intense or chaotic. The parallels between this war with the Mimics and the Second World War are heavy-handed indeed.

Cruise remains as bankable a movie star as there is out there although this is quite a different role for him, at least initially. Cage is a bit of a con artist, shucking and jiving his way through the army and willing to do anything to keep from going into actual battle. He’s a bit of a coward and a whole lot of arrogant, the kind of political survivor that always manages to land on his feet – until the aliens put him face-down. Eventually he grows a pair and becomes the hero we’re used to, but it is a slow process.

Blunt is also playing against type. Generally she plays a spunky but somewhat emotionally fragile sort but here she is all business and a credible action hero of her own. In the manga her character is sometimes known as The Bitch of War and that’s not far from the truth; she’s hard, merciless and without fear. She knows we’re losing this war and only one thing will prevent it – and her opportunity had slipped right through her fingers.

This isn’t a space opera – we never get a sense of how the aliens arrived here and what they want. The somewhat insectoid Mimics have lots of tentacles that owe something to the creature Giger created in Alien and they are terrifying. Kudos to the creature design team who also came up with the Alpha and Omega creatures as well. We’ve seen some decent alien designs in recent years although alien invasion movies have tended to be very poor as of late.

This is a little bit more thoughtful than most Hollywood summer blockbusters and that isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Yeah, sometimes all I really need is a loud movie with absolutely no thoughts in it at all, but this isn’t that. You are left to ponder the significance of each and every day with an eye towards learning how to use that pattern to your own advantage. I found it to be on par with the better-reviewed films of this summer and while the box office hasn’t been scintillating thus far for the movie, it is on course to at least make its production budget back and then some and in a crowded summer of stronger quality films than we’ve seen in recent years, we have to appreciate all the movies that aren’t just formulaic and either lacking in creativity, over-relying on CGI or pandering to its audience. Edge of Tomorrow does none of that.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining. Cruise plays against type.

REASONS TO STAY: Borrows a little from Starship Troopers, Battle: Los Angeles and Groundhog Day.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of sci-fi war violence, a fair amount of salty language and some sexually suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The failed invasion is depicted as taking place in Normandy. In the United States, the film’s official release date was June 6, 2014 – the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Trip to Italy

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

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