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

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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) 

Tsotsi


Tsotsi

Not so much a candlelit dinner for two.

(Miramax) Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Jerry Mofokeng, Ian Roberts, Percy Matsemela, Thembi Nyandeni. Directed by Gavin Hood

We are most often a product of our surroundings. Those who live in poverty and despair become what that poverty and despair make of them. Some have the strength to rise above, but more often than not, they become urban primitives, doing what is necessary to survive.

Few places on earth know more poverty and despair than Soweto, the ramshackle township southwest of Johannesburg. That is where Tsotsi (Chweneyagae) lives. A young man barely out of his teens, he lives on rage and whatever funds he can steal. He and his gang – fat, loyal Aap (Nkosi), bookish Boston (Magano) and cruel Butcher (Ngqobe) go out to the local train station every night to steal something, then repair to a Soweto bar to drink away their ill-gotten gains.

On this occasion, they choose a well-dressed mark to mug, then kill him ruthlessly and senselessly on a crowded train, quietly and efficiently so that none notice. Back at the bar where bartender Soekie (Nyandeni) dispenses beer, Tsotsi glares while Boston, sickened by what they have done, berates Tsotsi and tries to get him to admit to what he feels. He doesn’t even know what Tsotsi’s real name –  “tsotsi” means thug in the slang of Soweto. Tsotsi reacts with sick violence, beating Boston nearly to death.

Tsotsi leaves the bar and finds himself in an upscale suburban neighborhood. He sees a professional woman trying to get the gate to her home open as her remote isn’t working in the pouring rain. Tsotsi shoots her and takes off with her car, but is a marginal driver at best (something of a running joke throughout the movie). After having driven some distance, he discovers that he has an unwanted passenger – a small baby. Up to now, Tsotsi hasn’t hesitated to kill and one’s mind works overtime, wondering what terrible fate will befall the baby, but the street thug elects to take the baby home with him.

Thus Tsotsi’s journey begins, motivated by the helpless creature that comes into his life. After running out of condensed milk to feed his stolen baby, he encounters a young widow (Pheto) who is nursing a baby of her own. He forces her to breastfeed his baby at the point of a gun. Eventually, they strike up a relationship of sorts. She sees in him not a core of goodness, but something within him that is capable of turning away from the life of violence he has existed within all his life. She doesn’t convince him with some semblance of a great speech as a Hollywood writer might have done; instead, she allows nature to take its course.

Filmmaker Gavin Hood tells a movie that is not so much uniquely South African (although it is based on a novel by Athol Fugard) as it is a universal tale set in South Africa. Cruelty and despair are not unique to Soweto, nor is poverty but there is a unique spin exhibited here. For one thing, the soundtrack is propelled by the Kwaito music of South Africa, a kind of African rap. It fits the mood here very effectively, as is the incidental music, which is more spiritual. Either way, they help enhance the emotional qualities of the movie.

This won the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie last year, but there is nothing foreign about it. This speaks a language that we all understand, from the performances of Chweneyagae and Pheto to the simple response of a wheelchair-bound man that Tsotsi is hassling. When asked why he goes on living when his life is so bad, the man replies “Because I can still feel the sun on my hands.”

This is a powerful movie, one that isn’t about redemption so much as it is about finding the decency within us. It is unusual as it shows us a bad man who becomes better, rather than a good man becoming bad. I suppose the message is that if we can be corrupted by evil, so too can we be corrupted by good. That’s not something I had ever considered before, so this movie gets a lot of points just for that.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an outstanding movie that depicts not so much redemption but the first steps on that journey. The script is not so much innovative as imaginative but not in a fantasy way; it simply tells a story from a viewpoint that I haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tsotsi’s actions and cruelties sometimes make it very difficult to relate to him.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of violence, some scenes of baby nursing and a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie to be released by Miramax after the founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein left the company.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The disc features an early short film by Hood.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Duck Season

X-Men Origins: Wolverine


Two guys I'd think twice before shaking hands with.

Two guys I'd think twice before shaking hands with.

(20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Ryan Reynolds, Dominic Monaghan, Lynn Collins, Taylor Kitsch, Will.i.am, Kevin Durand, Daniel Henney, Scott Adkins, Tim Pocock, Stephen Leeder, Peter O’Brien. Directed by Gavin Hood.

One of the truisms of storytelling is “begin at the beginning.” That’s not always possible, but sometimes once we become involved in a story, we want to know more about what preceded it.

James Logan (Jackman) is a mutant. Born in the mid-19th century, he and his brother Victor Creed (Schreiber) are virtually indestructible, their wounds healing literally before our very eyes. Born with the mutant gene of instant regeneration, they are virtually immortal. In addition, they have the weapons to defend themselves; Creed has sharp claws that retract into his fingernails, Logan bony spikes that retract into his knuckles when he’s not using them.

They are born literally to battle, and they move from war to war, starting with the Civil War and all the way to Vietnam, fighting alongside each other but as time goes by, Victor becomes more bloodthirsty, less civilized. After he melts down and decapitates a senior officer, they are sentenced to death by firing squad. That has the same effect as all the other bullets that have passed into them over the decades.

While rotting in their cell, they are visited by Major William Stryker (Huston), an ambitious black ops sort who is putting together a team of specialized individuals, each with their own unique talents; Blob (Durand), a superstrong Southerner with an eating disorder; Wraith (Will.i.am), who can become invisible at will and can seemingly teleport from place to place; Bolt (Monaghan) who can influence electrical devices with his mind, as well as communicate telepathically; Agent Zero (Henney), who can make astonishing leaps that would do any gymnast proud, and also is absolutely deadly with any firearm – and Deadpool (Reynolds), who is awfully talented with a sword and also has the same regenerative ability the brothers have (he also can’t stop talking, which annoys the heck out of his teammates especially Stryker).

Logan is becoming increasingly appalled with the methods the team will go to, and when they massacre an African village, he walks out on them. Victor, on the other hand, revels in the carnage and has found a home and a purpose at long last.

Logan flees to a small town in the Canadian Rockies, where he takes a job as a lumberjack and moves in with a beautiful schoolteacher (Collins) who tells him native stories of the moon and her lover, banished to the Earth for leaving the spirit world, never able to touch again. The lover is the wolverine, howling in despair at the sight of his lost love. Logan is at last at peace, or as at peace as he gets – he is haunted by nightmares of horrible deeds, some of which he’s participated but some, disturbingly, seem to be being committed by his brother.

Logan’s peace is short-lived and the past comes calling, leaving him to cradle his lover’s body in his blood-soaked hands. The animal is awakened in him and he sets out on his path to become Wolverine – Weapon X, one of the most dangerous men on the planet. God help those who stand in between Logan and his revenge.

Director Gavin Hood actually has some pretty good films on his resume (including Tsotsi) and this is his first real major effect-laden blockbuster. There are definitely signs that Hood isn’t as comfortable yet with that kind of film. Granted, he’s also hampered by a very weak script that doesn’t really do the story justice.

There are two main problems here. The story is the first; there is a profusion of characters, some which exist only to give X-fans an a-ha moment. Fanboys are screaming that this isn’t anywhere near canon (and for those familiar with the backstory of Wolverine in the comics, that’s a legitimate gripe) but in all honesty, I’m less interested in slavish adherence to graphic novel continuity than I am with telling a good story, and this ends up not being a very good one. It’s maddening all the more because there are some elements that really work here and it’s a shame that the writers couldn’t maintain that level of quality throughout the two hours; it feels a little padded to be honest.

Second and more egregious are the special effects. Quite frankly, they’re horrible in places and it distracts from the movie. I expect major summer tentpole releases to have at the very least adequate special effects, but the CGI here ranges from ludicrous to downright astonishing (in a bad way). Wolverine’s claws often look fake, which considering this is his fourth appearance in the movies should never happen. There’s a shot near the end of a group of young mutants walking towards a helicopter that is so very obviously green screened, but done so poorly that you wonder if the shot wasn’t done thirty years ago and then shoehorned into this movie. I get the distinct impression that the effects work was assigned out to the various subcontractors far too late in the post-production process and that they were rushed to get them completed in time to make the release date. That’s inexcusable in this day and age.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some plusses in this movie. Jackman has got Wolverine down pat, and Schreiber is a truly menacing Sabretooth (that’s Victor Creed’s supervillain name for all you non-fanboys) who is much more of a threat than the Sabretooth played by Tyler Mane in X-Men. Reynolds makes a really fine Deadpool in his few brief moments in the movie, and I look forward to seeing him in his own movie, said to be getting much attention at Fox. And while the special effects were below par, the same can’t be said for the physical stunts and action sequences which are nicely done.

Overall, the movie is a bit on the disappointing side. I might have hoped for it to be a bit better written and definitely I would have hoped for better effects. Still, it is not without merit. It certainly hits many of the marks that you would expect a big summer action movie to hit, and if you’re looking for mindless entertainment you can certainly do worse. Overall, I’d rate it as sufficiently entertaining to go and see, but I don’t think it got the kind of repeat customer box office it might have gotten with some tweaking. This isn’t Iron Man by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it isn’t Elektra either.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackman makes a compelling Wolverine, and he and Schreiber have some great scenes together. Lots of great action sequences with fight scenes to satisfy the cravings of all summer action movie junkies jonesing for their first fix of the season.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing is uneven whose good moments are outweighed by cliches and shortcuts. The special effects are surprisingly bad, and one gets the impression they were hurried and not planned out properly.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and scenes of human experimentation can be fairly intense for more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman and Patrick Stewart are the only actors to appear in all four X-Men films (Stewart has a cameo near the end of Wolverine). Also, there were two post-credit scenes shown during the movie’s theatrical release; one showing Wolverine drinking in a bar, the other set at the rubble of the film’s final battle. Which ending audiences saw depended on what showing they went to.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: A fascinating conversation with former Marvel Comics head Stan Lee and Wolverine creator Len Wein.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days