Saturday, December 28, 2013

American Hustle

Alternate Title:  The Sleaziest Men in the Room

One sentence synopsis:  Two con artists must play the FBI, the mob, and a corrupt New Jersey politician against one another in the late 70s.

Things Havoc liked:  Twice before, director David O. Russel has appeared in this space, and twice before, I liked the result, even though I thought Silver Linings Playbook somewhat overrated, and The Fighter seriously overrated. His interest in strange, sleazy characters, and the kookiness that results from putting them together is obvious, and this time around, he seems to have decided to simply merge the casts of his two previous films, give them the most outlandish hairdos known to man, and let them loose on one another. I've seen worse pitches for a film.

Christian Bale is infamous in Hollywood for being insane enough to do literally anything to himself in pursuit of looking the part for a film, whether that be binging on protein and working out like a fiend for Batman, or starving himself to ghoulish proportions for the Machinist (things he did back-to-back). This time, Bale sports not only a beer gut but one of the most ridiculous hairdos I've ever seen, a truly spectacular comb-over complete with hair pad and enough gel to sink the Titanic. This in a movie replete with hairdos of the Gods, from Bradley Cooper's gerrycurls to Jeremy Renner's pompadour to whatever you want to call the hairstyles of Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams. The style of the late seventies, in all its tacky hideousness, is riven through this movie like a bacillus, from fashion to cars to architecture to interior design to the way people talk and live with one another. Couple that with a particular sense of place, that of northern New Jersey, and this is one of the most solidly atmospheric films I've ever seen.

But of course there's more here than atmosphere. Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist extraordinaire, hustling and cutting deals in every direction, a sleazy man in a sleazy town with a combover of power (I'm sorry, I can't get over it), and a constant feel for the odds for and against whichever of the nine deals he's currently engaged in. His partner in crime, played by Amy Adams, is another con artist, one who masquerades as British nobility when she's not using sixteen men for her own purposes, identifying men's needs and playing off them to set them up for another fall. Believe it or not, these two are our heroes in this film, not simply for lack of better options (though there is that), but because Russell's script humanizes these incredibly sleazy people expertly, showing us their inner lives, their broken families, and the competing pressures they deal with as they simply try to get by. Bale's character, for instance, is married, to Jennifer Lawrence, with whom he has a young son whom he feels he cannot abandon, even though he and his wife can barely tolerate one another, what with him a huckster, and her the single most skin-crawlingly manipulative, passive-aggressive basket case I've see anyone play in a good long while. Lawrence is the hot thing around Hollywood these days, but this character makes her turn in Silver Linings Playbook look like Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, so relentlessly shallow and self unaware that she's actually difficult to watch. Merely putting up with her for any length of time absolves Bale of much in this movie, as he tries, despite Lawrence and everything else, to simply survive.

But that's not easy with a plot and characters like this. Bradley Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent with a yearning to break through into a major case so intense it wafts off him like a stench. Having obtained leverage over our two small-time fraudsters, he proceeds to crowbar his case with them into the massive, sprawling federal affair that became known as ABSCAM, all while Bale and Adams, dragged along unwillingly for the ride, try desperately to keep some control of the situation. Caught in the middle of all this is Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito, a politician whose dirty laundry is only to be expected from someone named Carmine Polito who does business in New Jersey. Both Cooper and Renner are spot perfect in these roles, the former a desperate cop just on the cusp of his first taste of success in any venture at all, a taste which instantly goes to his head, while the latter is a blue-collar politician of the sort only the Mid-Atlantic seems to be able to produce, corrupt perhaps, but well meaning despite it, who seeks to use the corruption that surrounds him to the genuine betterment of his impoverished constituency. When we marvel how mayors of poor cities who are arrested with crack and hookers or busted in corruption scandals, still somehow manage to get overwhelmingly re-elected, we should consider Renner's character here, a populist in the tradition of Huey Long crossed with Jimmy Hoffa, someone who wades through the grease to actually get something accomplished.

This, essentially, is the film, a study of characters who are set against one another and proceed to weave plots of labyrinthine complexity to entangle each other, playing and being played by many in turn. Indeed the strength of the film is such that, despite the intricate dance of leverage and scamming going on, the focus of the film is squarely on the characters themselves, particularly those of Bale, Adams, and Lawrence, all three of whom turn in masterful performances (the first I've seen from Adams), particularly Bale. His character is wound up so tightly in the madness of his crazy life that it seems impossible for him to make sense of it. At times he finds himself literally suffering panic attacks from the strain, and yet without betraying the fundamental weaknesses of the character, he manages, somehow, to keep things going despite the ever-escalating involvement of the police, the FBI, and the Mafia. It's unnecessary at this point to call Christian Bale a great actor, as he's been evidencing this fact since the age of 12. But this, nonetheless, is one of his best performances, layered and nuanced and emotional despite the hair and the clothes and the terrible taste laden atop it all.

Things Havoc disliked:  It can be hard to figure out just what is going on at certain points, as the plot is extremely dense and the character relations so complex and laden with misdirection that it ultimately confuses the audience. Most of the time this is intentional, an attempt to introduce uncertainty as to the true motives of a character (usually Adams'), but it's not usually a good thing to have your audience spend large sections of the movie unsure as to what's going on. Granted, the film is generally strong enough that when something rings false, or seems out of place, it turns out to have a purpose behind it, but unfortunately that doesn't hold true every time. Cooper's character, for instance, goes so far over the top that at one point he attacks his boss (Louis C.K.) and beats him with a telephone for having the temerity to call a halt to an investigation whose scope and cost are spiraling out of control. That an agent so tightly wound might do such a thing I can perhaps believe, but such an agent would be instantly cashiered if not arrested and thrown in federal prison. Some movies could perhaps get away with this, but American Hustle goes out of its way to present itself as a realistic, albeit deranged, story. This is a problem, as the film later expects us to swallow characters acting in a strange, suspicious manner, with the promise that this behavior will be explained later. But as the characters have been allowed to act unrealistically before, we are left wondering if what we've just seen is foreshadowing or a plot hole.

Final thoughts:   Do not, however, let these minor quibbles affect your takeaway from this one, for in a lesser film than American Hustle, they would not even have been noticed. This movie is the David Russel film that people have long been telling me he was capable of making, a grandiose exploration of sleazy, damaged people, in a strange setting, trying to get one over on each other. I'm a great fan of (almost) all of these actors, and of course remain one now, but even so, I was not expecting this level of general quality. A film done well, regardless of subject matter, is always better than a film whose concept is not matched by its execution, and American Hustle is perhaps the best proof thereof. And it's one of the best ways I can think of to ring out the Old Year.

Final Score:  8/10

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Alternate Title:  Dragoncon (say it aloud)

One sentence synopsis:  Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and the Quest for Erebor approach their destination and encounter Smaug the Terrible.

Things Havoc liked:  The decision to make the Hobbit into a film at all was a contentious move among nerds, as was the decision to divide it in three. I quite liked the first Hobbit film, indeed I put it on my best-of-the-year list (albeit at number 10), but there were a large number of people who did not, some for reasons I found valid and some for reasons I found stupid. My own issues with the film concerned its length, which at risk of spoiling the next section, remains an issue in this film, and also with its pacing, which does not.

Now on the final stretch of their journey, the company of Dwarves and a Hobbit find themselves confronted by the Elf fastness of Mirkwood, the sealed floating city of Laketown, and Erebor itself, complete with dragon. Bereft of the need to introduce the main cast (with a few new-come exceptions), this movie can dive straight into the meat of the subject, as Thorin and company are beset by giant spiders, orcish raiders, and insular Elves led by Thranduil, King of Mirkwood, and his son, Legolas. Fortunately, the Dwarves are in the company of Bilbo, who has proven a quick study after his education-by-fire in adventuring last time around. Bilbo here is a completely different hobbit than the one who set out at Bag End, competent, cool and collected in even the most chaotic of circumstances. Bilbo was one of my favorite parts of the last film, as he was a hobbit totally unlike the previous hobbits we'd seen, a rational, reasonable man in a world that outsized him considerably. All of these qualities are retained by Martin Freeman in this film, but rather than repeat themselves through Bilbo's previous character arc, this time Bilbo is a practiced adventurer, dueling with giant spiders, stealing from elven lords, and even confronting dragons out of a sense of obligation and having already seen a lifetime worth of excitement. Bilbo is, as is right for the series, my favorite character in this film as much as the last one, as he meets every challenge with ingenuity and expertise, building off of the place we last left him, buoyed by the ring, his own confidence, or some inner store of strength that allows him to approach the patently lethal situations he gets himself into with the knowledge that he has actually somehow already seen and been through worse.

But Bilbo's only one character among many, and we'll be here all day if I cite each one of them. To cap off quickly then, Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarven expedition remains as expertly played by Richard Armitage in this film as he was in the last. Knowing, as I do, where the films are going, the character arc as he nears the final fulfillment of his quest is spot on, slowly showing the risks attendant even in successes when the object of one's quest is wealth of a scale unimaginable by anyone present. Ian McKellan's Gandalf remains as Gandalfian as ever, while the various other dwarves, some of whom get larger screen time than the previous outing, each play their respective roles to the hilt, showcasing the diversity even within the Dwarven ranks. Newcomers to the series include Luke Evans as Bard, a hopeless Gary Stu in the books, who here comes across as an effective everyman within the strange, floating city of Laketown, a man simply trying to make ends meet who has the bearers of this tremendous quest (and the risks they represent) dumped on him by surprise, and now must make the best of things. We also get elves, particularly the returning Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and the newcomer Evangeline Lily (Real Steel) as Tauriel, a captain in the elf-guard of Mirkwood. To my abject astonishment, I actually enjoyed both of these actors' performances, in Bloom's case more than I did in the Lord of the Rings! This is a younger, more militant, much less friendly Legolas, who still engages in his signature invincible death-machine moves (unfortunately), but this time actually is allowed to get his ass kicked (a bit), as well as confront the Dwarves with undisguised, untrammeled hostility, as befits the Mirkwood elves. Tauriel meanwhile, is allowed to shine on her own, and the love interest aspect between her and Legolas (as well as with a third character I won't spoil here) is thankfully not made too much of. Both Tauriel and Legolas are allowed to simply interact quite a bit, speaking in Elvish and discussing things the way one might expect immortal forest-elves might well discuss given the situation. And of course, no listing of the cast would be complete without mentioning Benedict Cumberbatch's deliciously sultry, almost Jaffar-esque turn as Smaug the Golden, a titanic dragon who plays with his prey as a cat might a mouse before unleashing his true, terrifying power. Cumberbatch, who also provided Motion Capture for the Great Wyrm, works wonders here, his voice artificially infused with thunderous timber, becoming a menacing growl from the depths of some cavernous hell. It's as spot-on a casting as Andy Serkis was for Gollum.

The pacing was the big stumbling block of the first Hobbit film, and it is a great pleasure to report that it is much improved this time round. Whether there was actually less action in this film or the action was simply better paced, editted, and presented, I cannot say, but the dreaded Battle Fatigue did not rear its ugly head this time round for me at least, despite a three hour run time and multiple ten+ minute sequences of unbroken action. What action there is is concentrated in the first and last hours of the film, leaving the entire middle of the film for character introduction, development, politics, and general adventure/suspense. As with the Two Towers, this movie must cut back and forth between multiple simultaneous story threads, be it Gandalf attempting to beard the lion in his den by storming Dol Guldur itself, the Dwarves and Bilbo making their way through Mirkwood to Laketown and beyond, the Elves under King Thranduil (Legolas' father) debating what tact to take, and executing it, and the Orcs under the command of Azog the Defiler (and his son Bolg) making their own plans. Yet the threads weave themselves together seamlessly, and result in a film that is engaging overall from the first minute to the very last, one that never manages to bog itself down in repetitious action or "spectacle" sequences the way the first Hobbit movie occasionally did.

Things Havoc disliked:  Not every additional actor manages to hit one out of the park here. The aforementioned Thranduil (Lee Pace) unfortunately comes across like a Tim Curry character, hamming it up just a bit too much with his elongated vowels and slightly simpering tone. I grant that Thranduil is supposed to represent an obstacle of some sort, but there's no sign of the quiet regalness of Galadriel or Elrond here. Maybe that was the point, but it's one that I felt could have been made better. Similarly, Stephen Fry of all people plays the Master of Laketown as a pompous buffoon straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, an Edwardian fop in wig and lace that makes little-to-no sense in the context of the wider world of Middle Earth. I see what they were trying to go for with this character, but once more the filmmakers overstate their point, turning the Master into the kind of windbag who is astonished, ASTONISHED, I SAY, at the notion that his people dislike starving to death!

There's also a few moments, generally mid-combat sequence, where Jackson's tendency towards the Slapstickier side of things re-asserts itself. Not that the combat is all hilarity, it's mostly not, but on occasion, one finds characters performing feats of ridiculously impossible deathwreaking purely by accident, an event which always reminds me uncomfortably of the climax to Star Wars Episode 1. Slapstick is fine, by and large, when it reflects the characters' actual intended actions. I don't much care for it when someone effortlessly annihilates an army of enemies without meaning to simply through fortuitous luck.

Final thoughts:  Hobbit 1 opened to mixed reviews, though I was certainly one of those who counted myself its champion. Hobbit 2 however, bucking the middle-film curse, takes the Star Wars route of being an improvement over the original in every way. Capitalizing on what worked in the previous film and resolving or at least minimizing that which did not, the Desolation of Smaug is a tremendous film, epic in all the right ways, worthy to stand alongside its legendary predecessors, and promising more to come. I said about the first movie that the worst thing that could be said about it was that it wasn't as good as the three Lord of the Rings movies. To sum things up as concisely as I can, this one is.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Alternate Title:  The Evil Overlord List

One sentence synopsis:  Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark must compete in a champions league edition of the Hunger Games, even as the flames of rebellion begin to spread across the land.

Things Havoc liked:  Last year's Hunger Games was a complete surprise to me, to the rest of the viewing public, and probably to the film's distributors, who chose to dump it in the middle of the Doldrums like a known bomb. Rather than the would-be Twilight ripoff that many (including me) were expecting, Hunger Games was a flawed but fundamentally strong film, one that inserted a breath of fresh air into the YA film market, and left me at least anticipating the sequel with something akin to optimism. While I'm as aware as any of how dangerous unfettered optimism can be when walking into a new film, there are occasions when hope is rewarded, and it is my pleasure to report that Catching Fire, a film that is superior to its predecessor in largely every respect, is one such occasion.

A year has passed since Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) vanquished all opposition in the 74th Hunger Games, and against all odds, both survived to return home. In that year, conditions in their Appalachian (I assume) home have deteriorated from bad to worse, with ever-more brutal acts of repression from the central authorities. Their families cared for by virtue of their status as victors, Katness and Peeta are forced to play along with the cover story from the previous movie of being star-crossed lovers, despite the increasing brittleness of the lie in question and of Panem's control over its impoverished provinces. The film wisely takes its time establishing the tense circumstances that Panem finds itself in, in order to properly give weight to the decision by the central government to pull together a special edition of the Games starring only previous winners. The complex subtleties of the central authority's control, from broadcast propaganda to calculated brutality are explored in detail, as well as the thinking behind the arbitrary-seeming decisions concerning the games themselves and the traps and designs that go into them. What emerges is a picture of a real society, built upon the basis of what was established in the previous film, but granted this time a patina of verisimilitude as we begin to understand just what makes Panem tick.

It feels like I've spent pages and pages of these reviews praising Jennifer Lawrence, but once more isn't going to kill me. Her performance in the last film was very good, and this one is simply better, an older and more embittered Katniss than the girl we saw in the last film, whose capacity to tolerate the horrific atrocities she witnesses around her as she is forced to go on tour for the central authorities and recite sterile speeches and propaganda to enmiserated serfs being crushed under the same oppression that placed her in the previous games. Her relationships with everyone from Peeta to Haymich (Woody Harrelson) to the rest of her competitors to the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to her still-wonderfully campy stylist Effie (Elizabeth Banks) is everywhere more complex, more mature, more real than it was in the previous film, and yet never feels random. She plays everything from desperate fear to boiling anger to contemptuous professionalism with an ease that actresses thrice her age would struggle to adopt, and absolutely inhabits Katniss from start to finish. Yet the big surprise to me was that, unlike the last movie, the same can be said of Josh Hutcherson's Peeta, previously a pining boy-next-door type whose role was effectively to play damsel in distress for Katniss, now a seasoned killer in his own right, who still carries the torch for Katniss, but never in the cheesy, mopey, teenage-angst way that so many movies do. Hutcherson doesn't so much amp up his performance as deepen it, never pushy, never insistent, never given to raging tirades about why someone doesn't love him, simply trying to ensure that he and Katniss survive yet another horrific ordeal. I've never cared for Hutcherson, not as a child actor nor as an adult, but he is miles better this time round, and acquits himself in excellent company with aplomb.

And what company it is. The most interesting elements of the previous Hunger Games were the decadent and fascinating world of Panem, a world I felt we did not get enough time with, and which was filled with interesting characters portrayed by excellent actors. All of them (save for the occasional casualty) return in this film, and are joined by newcomers such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee (those names!), gamemaster for the special edition of the Hunger Games. Hoffman and I are not always on the best of terms, but this is a case where his signature understated performance is spot-on. The character is no shrieking maniac, nor a pastiche of evil, rubbing his hands together over the glories of wickedness, but a master manipulator, psychological and calculating as he seemingly effortlessly prepares the "moves and countermoves" that are the tools of his trade. Recognizing the fundamental immorality of his profession, he alone in Panem seems to disdain the vain decadence of the society around him even as he exploits it ruthlessly to political ends.

But by far, the most refreshing addition to this top-notch cast is not Hoffman nor any other member of Panem elite, but the group of returning, veteran Tributes that Katniss and Peeta are pitted against. So easy it would have been for this film to turn into a repetition of its sequel, as Katniss is forced to kill a fresh crop of "designated evil" Tributes in reverse order of total screentime, but rather than do this, the film turns itself to the question of just who the rest of these people are, and what they might think of being dragged out of a comfortable retirement to massacre one another at the behest of President Snow. All of these characters, from the Capitol-pretty-boy-turned-ally Finnick (Snow White's Sam Claflin) to the fiery and vicious (and extremely bitter) Johanna (Suckerpunch's Jena Malone), to the mad scientist-turned-contestant Beetee (Casino Royale's Jeffery Wright). In every case, the movie establishes the sort of character (hulking brute, evil sexpot vamp, bitter nerd) that we've seen in dozens of these movies before, and then pulls the rug out from under them by giving them complex motives, goals, and character points that we are allowed only to glimpse, as the simple premise of the Hunger Games is twisted on its head by the boiling stew of character machinations that the movie has unleashed.

With a budget twice the size of the original film (something that's prone to happen when your first installment makes three quarters of a billion), much of the pacing and cinematographic issues, such as they were, in the first movie are absent here. No more shakeycam, no more hyper-frenetic action required to soften the fact that we were (then) watching kids killing kids, just a well-shot, gorgeously-vibrant movie, from the cold, sterile landscapes of District 12's slag mounds, to the glittering, degenerate capital city of Panem, to a weird, crater-like tropical bowl complete with inland sea that serves as the setting for the Games themselves. As before, we spend a fair amount of time within the game arena (which I suppose is only to be expected), but unlike last time, when I had issues with that fact, this time there's actually plot and character development occurring within the Games themselves, giving us an actual reason to be there other than the mechanical act of watching 22 opponents be reduced to none. As such my complaints about the time spent therein, ones predicated on the notion that Panem was inherently more interesting than the Games themselves, no longer applies.

Things Havoc disliked:  There do remain a few sticking points I wasn't overly keen on. Liam Hemsworth (brother of Thor) plays Gale Hawthorne, the love interest (?) of Katniss when she's not pretending to be madly in love with Peeta. His role would appear to be important, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it was, as he mostly serves to occasionally complain to Katniss about the fact that she's required to pretend to be madly in love with Peeta. I understand the situation is awkward, but the reasons for this charade are perfectly obvious to literally everyone else in the movie, including the villains, and other than this complaint, he basically here takes over Peeta's role as designated whipping boy who must be saved by Katniss whenever convenient for the plot. I suppose he was in the book, but in the film his character just comes across as being placed on ice, revealed to remind us who he is until he actually gets to do something in movie three.

There is, also, the ending to the film, which I will try not to spoil, but like Ender's Game before it (although to a much lesser degree) feels inordinately rushed. I don't mind it when a movie sets up its sequel, and such behavior is almost mandatory for the second part of a trilogy nowadays (thank you Star Wars), but the establishment of this sequel takes place in less than a couple of minutes, and in what might as well be voiceover narration, as a character we've barely seen appears and explains sudden and tremendous plot revelations to our main characters, revelations it would have been far more interesting to actually see. The revelations themselves aren't the problem, as they make sense given everything and establish the premise for the next film well. But film, as always, is a visual medium, and these things don't have the required weight when we're sitting in a room just talking to one another about the terrible events that have occurred.

Final thoughts:   In case I somehow haven't been clear, Catching Fire is a superb film, from beginning to (nearly) end, one that surpasses the achievements of its predecessor with effortless grace, giving us more of the things we enjoyed from the original and replacing all of the things we did not. YA fare like Twilight, The Host, or next year's Deviation remain anathema to me, yet the Hunger Games is the exception that proves the rule, a film so rich in character and premise and plot and story as to render all such comparisons obsolete. Despite having been caught off-guard by the original's release date and subject matter, I was once more caught off guard for the sequel, this time by the sheer quality of storytelling and filmmaking on offer, and with the year nearly over, I unhesitatingly pronounce it one of the finest movies I've seen all year.

After the first Hunger Games, my desire to see another film was founded on my curiosity as to whether lightning could strike twice. After the second, my desire to see the third is based on the fact that with a movie this good, all I can ask for is more.

Final Score:  8/10

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Ender's Game

Alternate Title:  Better with Kinect

One sentence synopsis:  Boy-genius Ender Wiggin trains at a futuristic battle school to become the commander of Earth's war against an alien species.

A Note Before we Begin:  What a hornet's nest this film turned out to be, so tied up in the politics surrounding Orson Scott Card that it's become borderline impossible to speak of it as a film. Two different people informed me that they would not read my reviews any longer if I so much as went to see this movie, irrespective of the score I gave it. While I certainly have no sympathy for Card's politics, this absolutist rejection is a line of thought I find uncomfortably akin to those who threw books onto bonfires because their authors were liberals or Jews, and lest any lingering firebrands remain, I saw this movie without reference to Card's homophobia, and will be reviewing it as such. If this policy is not to your liking, there are plenty of other reviewers to follow.

Things Havoc liked:  The more I think about Enders' Game, the more I wonder if it wasn't intended as a sequel to Independence Day, and re-purposed partway through with the book in mind. See if the concept sounds familiar to you: 30 years after defeating a massive alien battlefleet which nearly annihilated the planet and destroyed many major cities, the humans have harvested alien technology and constructed a unified government and military capable of visiting the war back on the aliens themselves. In the flashback scene at the beginning of the film, we watch as the hero of the previous war flies his lone jet fighter up into the center of a massive alien mothership, striking its weak point and destroying it and the surrounding fighters in a single, cataclysmic blow. It was enough that I sat there wondering if this mystery pilot informed the aliens that he was "baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack".

When one wishes to make a film, be it sci-fi extravaganza or historical manners piece, one could do worse than to start by assembling a cast of actors whom I have enjoyed in many movies previously, and offer to present them to me. It is in this spirit that Ender's Game stars Harrison Ford, who finally breaks his recent streak of phoning it in, playing Colonel Graff, the commander of Earth's defense forces, who has been assigned, for reasons never made entirely clear, to recruit children and teenagers for training as potential commanders of the space force assigned to fight the war against the aliens. Ford's character is a pragmatist first and foremost, employing his customary gravelly, seen-everything voice, defending his choices as he plays psychological games to draw out the inner fighters and sociopaths of his would-be trainees. Assisting him in this endeavor are Ben Kingsley, playing Mazer Rackham (?), a part-Maori tactical trainer who ruthlessly molds the best candidates into the necessary killers, and Viola Davis as Gwen Anderson, the psychological expert in charge of monitoring the social dynamics of the kids so as to identify those possessing the best traits. All of these people do excellent jobs in roles that should frankly be ludicrously silly, bearing in mind the entire time that there are consequences to inaction, even as they debate the whens, hows, and whyfors. As the adults in the room, they are the ones charged with lending the film a patina of "realness", and do so very well.

But of course this film is not about the adults, but the kids, led by Hugo's star, Asa Butterfield, as the titular Ender Wiggin (where do they get these names?), a boy recruited into "battle school" and gradually molded over the course of the film into someone's ideal of the perfect commander. Though I'm not entirely certain what accent he was aiming at (and I'm not certain he was either), Butterfield actually does very well here, as he did in the aforementioned Hugo, playing a kid trying to deal with almost unfathomable pressure applied steadily to him since birth to conquer, win, and be the best. He manages to show the ruthless and innocent sides of Ender's character (mostly) without the need for showy emotional scenes, and holds his own against Ford and his former co-star Kingsley effortlessly. Alongside him is Hailee Steinfeld, of True Grit (my first ever review!), whose performance, while nowhere near the standout of the aforementioned film, still complements Butterfield's exceptionally well, displaying the effortless confidence that particularly smart teenagers seem to possess (or at least fake) in limitless quantities. The majority of the other kids, played by various actors I've understandably never heard of, are just as good, whether their roles are antagonistic, supporting, or a mixture of both.

It's no surprise anymore when a blockbuster comes replete with excellent effects, but Ender's Game's manage to be noteworthy nonetheless. Alien designs are weird enough and appropriately insectoid, while the space stations appear sufficiently strangely-shaped to be believable. Battle sequences are crisp and involve at least a nod to physics, in that spaceships shatter rather than explode when struck by munitions, and the movie even uses the fact that smashed wreckage in outer space carries momentum and mass as a plot point during one of the more hectic fights. Earlier sequences involving zero-G laser-tag fights employ accurate physics, often used for tactical gain, and the film wisely tends to assume that the audience will be able to figure the physics out intuitively and thus spares us the lesson in Newtonian mechanics. In the cinematography department, the film is shot with unusual sharpness, by what technique I do not know, which enables the viewer to see every imperfection and blemish on every actor's face. I can only assume was a stylistic decision to help humanize characters who are not generally allowed showy scenes of hyper-emotion.

Things Havoc disliked:  The plot of Ender's Game is something one simply has to accept as a base premise. Even the movie appears to state as much, brushing aside the question of just why children are being thrown into command of battlefleets with a quick explanation of reaction times and openness to new ideas, or some such. I'm willing to meet a film halfway, and can therefore accept the premise, but no such excuse offers itself in defense of the writing. Dialog is wooden and stiff from beginning to end, not because of exposition dumps (of which there are many, but which are handled reasonably well), but simply because the characters, child or adult, speak like nobody in history has ever spoken. If one character responds to massive pressure with monotone robot-like utterances, I can understand it, but not when the entire cast acts like they're auditioning for Robocop. Things get worse when the characters are supposed to act relaxed. The actors convey much through expression and vocal tone, but when they open their mouths to talk, its like someone dubbed a completely different set of words in. Director Gavin Hood is also credited as the screenplay writer of this film, and judging by the result, they might have done better to just let Orson Scott Card take over the duties in question, as he at least managed to create a popular book out of the concept unladen by such problems.

But the dialog, stiff though it is, pales in comparison to the major problem of the film, the pacing. Butterfield's last film, Hugo, had massive pacing problems, resulting in a first half that was entirely superfluous to everything. This film not only repeats the same mistake (what was the point of all that laser tag, really?), but compounds the matter by being forced to cram all the rest of the film into what feels like the last twenty minutes of its sub-two-hour run time. As a result, the actual events of the Command School training (which are of considerable importance, given everything), the war itself, and its aftermath, are treated like a cliffs notes version of the actual book, rushed through in such haste that it actually opens plot holes that would otherwise not be there. Is it reasonable to assume, for instance, that tens of thousands of humans could build and inhabit a major military base for twenty-seven years without once exploring a highly visible cave located literally a hundred yards outside the main entrance? A little bit of breathing room would have allowed the film to establish elements like this properly, without giving us the impression that the film was trying to hustle us out the door without thinking things through. Worse yet, this compression means that Kingsley's character, as well as the climactic war that Ender has supposedly been training for, occupy barely a third of the film's runtime (if that). Blockbusters are routinely 2-3 hours nowadays, why was this film forced down into such a restrictive timeslot? And knowing that it was going to be, why would the director not choose to concentrate on the elements that were of the most importance, as opposed to the third consecutive "dealing with a bully who doesn't like him" sequence that Ender is subjected to?

Final thoughts:   Even without considering the politics of its author, Ender's Game is a hard movie to sum up properly. The acting is good, and the film easily comprehensible, despite the literal rocket science it is laden with, and yet the basics of writing and storyboarding are all so wrong as to make one question whether or not some calamity overcame the project mid-production, necessitating unforeseen and clunky changes to the script. I genuinely like both Butterfield and Steinfeld, to say nothing of veterans Kingsley and Ford, but the movie's flaws are such that it's largely irrelevant how well they do their jobs. By no means was Ender's Game an unpleasant movie to sit through (clunky though the dialog did get, especially at the beginning), but I would not expect it to find its way into anyone's catalogue of treasured classics. As such, without getting into the question of whether Orson Scott Card is an unfairly maligned genius or a homophobic reactionary misanthrope, the film of its own volition merits, in my mind, a conclusion that very few of the partisans surrounding its debate will be willing to consider, that of mediocrity.

Not every movie is worthy of the rapturous hagiographies or thunderous denunciations that come with scores on the narrow ends of the bell curve, guys. Some films, despite all the outrage and fire, just don't manage to stand out at all.

Final Score:  5.5/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...