April 29, 2014

Ender's Game (2013)

Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, and the kid from Hugo

Yes, yes, Orson Scott Card is against gay marriage and Obama and he is quite possibly just batsh*t crazy. Now that I've acknowledged all that, can we focus on the movie and not his political views?!?

Ender's Game is a great f*cking book. And yes, the profanity is necessary because seriously, it's a great f*cking book. I'm sorry for all the people who can't bring themselves to read it because they can't separate the crap that comes out of Orson Scott Card's mouth and what he wrote on paper some 40+ years ago because they are missing out on a story that goes beyond sci-fi and into the realms of "timeless classic."

With a story this strong, the movie had an excellent foundation upon which to build. And despite all the negative reviews I heard before watching it, I actually thought the screenwriter did a decent job of relaying the main points of the book. It's always an impossible task to adapt a widely beloved book into a movie without deeply disappointing rabid fans of the story, but even if one hadn't read the book, I think the plot was simple enough to follow without being predictable or boring.

Of course, there were some major omissions (as there always are when adapting a long novel that took years and years to write into a two hour movie that is produced in a year or two). Ender's siblings, Peter and Valentine, are practically non-existent in the movie. (Though I'm not entirely sure I didn't see that as a minor positive, since Abigail Breslin [aka Little Miss Sunshine] was cast as Valentine. Ugh.) Also missing was the huge parallel of the political goings-on down on Earth while Ender is up in space, orchestrated by Peter and Valentine themselves. I think this is where the movie loses the book fans. I can't imagine it would have been that difficult to splice in a few shots here and there of the unrest going on down on Earth, but perhaps the director felt that would leave that storyline incomplete and decided to cut it all together. To include it with as much detail as they pour into Ender's training, the movie would have to be split into multiple parts (and I think we all know how I feel about that...). So that may make me a traitor of the book, but I'm not outraged by cutting out the Earth parallel.

Speaking of cutting...while I can understand the need for the movie to condense the timeline of Ender's training, we miss the huge fact that Ender is in fact six years old when he starts this training program. A six-year old being trained to fight and kill is vastly different than an eleven-year old or however old Ender is supposed to be in this movie. But I understand easily confused viewers have difficulty watching the same character played by different actors as he ages, so I can see how this decision was made. Again, streamlining the story for the simplicity of the masses.

Ender's personality was also sanitized, probably to make him a bit more likable and appeal to a younger crowd. I think is where Peter's absence is felt, as the audience misses his huge influence on Ender's psyche. A couple of references to Ender's fear of being like his brother really isn't enough to show just how deeply rooted that fear is, nor why Ender acts the way he does. Also, his own penchant for violence was toned way down and with a third person view of the story (juxtaposed against the first person view of the book), the viewers miss a lot of the complex thoughts and emotions Ender has running through his head. Instead, they attempt to relay it through awkward, stiff dialogue and long stares. But hey, they got that PG-13 rating!

There was, however, one improvement the movie made over the book. The book has lengthy, detailed descriptions of every battle Ender fights during school. If you've ever read a historical war book, you understand how tedious this can become. I mean, a play by play of every soldier's position is a lot more than the average person is capable of imagining (and really, more than the average person wants to imagine). But by adapting the story into a slick action film, these battle scenes and his training regime becomes much more streamlined and enjoyable. (Though still, the person I watched this movie with fell asleep during that portion. Can't win 'em all, I guess.)

Final word: This sanitized version of the story could have never lived up to the book, but it was a decent action movie in its own right. When it [inevitably] runs over and over again on TNT or Spike, I'd stop on the channel.

P.S. If you only watched the movie, do yourself a favor and actually read the book. It will blow you away. (Also, it's less than $5 on Amazon. Seriously. When is the last time you bought anything for less that $5?!?)

April 25, 2014

The Way Way Back (2013)

Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Amanda Peet

It's difficult to make a new coming-of-age story. Not only has it been done a million time before, it's been done so well a million times before that you can probably name a dozen excellent coming-of-age films off the top of your head right now. Almost Famous. Boyz N the Hood. Whale Rider. Dazed and Confused. The Outsiders. Sixteen Candles. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The Breakfast Club. Hell, anything from John Hughes. (And if you're wondering if I Googled, that list, the answer is, of course I did! Who would come up with Whale Rider off the top of their head?? But I really have seen all the movies I just listed.)

My point is, the whole coming-of-age topic is so popular it's tough to pull off convincingly. It's even more difficult when the deck is stacked against you in casting. By that, I mean we've got the whole Steve Carell-in-a-serious-role-thing again, AnnaSophia Robb, who I just hate for no other reason than I think she makes a sucky Carrie Bradshaw, and it's all hinged on the shoulders of Young Shawn from Psych.

But, the movie is enjoyable. So enjoyable, in fact, that for a brief moment, I understood all those annoying people who can't stop talking about why indie movies are so much better than mainstream blockbusters. (Of course, then I remembered how many horrible indie films I've seen and thought about how it's idiotic to classify one type of movie categorically better than another.) This movie has such a charm to it and even though it's mostly predictable, it doesn't seem to matter. Maybe it's because I'm sucker for C.J. Cregg Allison Janney, who really steals the show during her brief appearances. I even tried to watch Mom for her. (Alas, I couldn't even make it through the pilot episode.)

There is, however, a weird Legally Blonde bend-and-snap moment where the movie takes a sharp left turn and you wish its attempt at a quick plot pick-me-up would stop. I don't want to give away too many details, but it involves beatboxing and a pretty terrible rendition of the robot. And I can't quite remember, but the worm may also have been involved? I've mostly blocked it out at this point.

But other than that, it keeps a pretty high standard throughout. And you don't have see Amanda Peet naked!! (For once)

Final word: It's not going to make any "best of" lists, but it's an enjoyable watch.

April 17, 2014

Ironman 3 (2013)

Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley

My sister once told me she didn't like Robert Downey Jr. because "he looks like someone who would wear boot cut jeans." I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I've always liked Robert Downey Jr. If I had a laminated Top 5 list, Robert Downey Jr. would be my first alternate. (In case you're wondering, my hypothetical 5 would consist of Josh Lucas, Marat Safin, Ryan Gosling, Allen Iverson, and - as anyone who knows me in real life - Kiefer Sutherland, of course.)

I don't, however, care for Gwyneth Paltrow. I'm not really sure anyone does. I have no idea how she maintains that newsletter of hers in which she patronizingly tells you everything you're doing in life is wrong, but somehow, GOOP lives. Awesome name, btw, Gwyneth. GOOP.

My point is that despite all of Gwyneth's postulating on how to dress, eat, and live, she doesn't seem to realize that whomever made the decision to dye her anemic blonde hair to a dark strawberry blonde knows a hell of a lot more about how to style people than anyone on the GOOP staff. I don't know how the styling team does it, but they somehow make Gwyneth look like someone who is not completely out of place in a movie.

I could have done without the shots of her in a bra (even the Ironman stylists couldn't pull that one off), but I suppose it could have been worse - Katherine Heigl could have been cast instead.

In regards to the movie itself - well, it's clearly a sequel. I'm not sure if writers get lazy and figure the movie will make an easy $100M+ off the title alone, so they don't bother to get creative with the script, or if by the third movie, they have literally run out of new ideas. The plot is not spectacular. The "plot twists" are mostly predictable and there are a fair number of lame action movie cliches (like the villain monologuing the master plan before offing someone). The coolest part of the movie is imagining what life would be like if we actually had all the technology utilized by Tony Stark throughout. It's as if the movie is mocking the outdated projection touch screen Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report. 'Oh, you think that'll be seen in the future as cutting edge technology? That's cute.'

The other highlight? Gandhi Ben Kingsley's appearance, which was nothing short of brilliant. Frankly, if Tom Cruise could garner a Golden Globe nomination for his 3 minute appearance in Tropic Thunder, Ben Kingsley could have at least gotten some attention for his role in this movie. He was certainly a better actor than Guy Pearce, who reflected his talent on the level of Keanu Reeves as anything other than a stoner.

Final word: This movie desperately made me wish I had paid more attention in science class. It also made me desperately wish there will not be an Ironman 4.

April 9, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, et al

Before I get started, I just want to say that while I generally like Jennifer Lawrence, if I have to see another movie with her in it right now, I might just puke. She's playing everything from a teenager to a sexpot housewife. Is she really so versatile that she can be the only person to fulfill all these roles? I've seen six of her last eight movies, all of which were made in a span of 3 years. Can you say "overexposed?"


In case you missed my review of the first Hunger Games movie, I'll recap - I was unimpressed. By pretty much everything. So my expectations going into this movie were...well, it's four months into 2014 and I'm just now getting around to seeing it.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe it's because I had such low expectations, but I felt like this movie was a vast improvement from the first one in pretty much every area.

The plot was much truer to the book this time around. And maybe it's due to the fact that Peeta has about 5 lines in the entire move, but even Josh Hutcherson bothered me less than the last movie. (Though still, I am still decidedly against his casting in the first place and plead that someone in Hollywood speak with me before making such key casting decisions.) I also appreciated the effort in having Jennifer Lawrence essentially pull a Katie Holmes and stealthily bend her knees and crouch every time she was standing next to Josh Hutcherson so that it would at least look like Peeta was bigger than Katniss. It's the little things.

Also in the casting department, the actors picked to represent the other Hunger Games contestants were as I would have imagined them. Jena Malone, who I normally detest (her crappy British accent almost ruined Pride and Prejudice for me) was an excellent choice to portray an obnoxious Johanna Mason. Of course, we still had to put up with Lenny Kravitz pretending to be an actor...

I actually enjoyed the second book more than the first, so that makes this movie adaptation even more impressive. The Games themselves are more complex and I think the movie does a solid job of incorporating not only the facts from the books, but expanding the character development beyond the book by showing the change in moods and affects of different characters throughout. So, congratulations screenwriters - you did a better job than Suzanne Collins herself (who couldn't be bothered to provide much, if any, character development beyond Katniss). And kudos to whomever made the decision to replace the screenwriters from the first movie...

But my favorite aspect of the movie was actually the lack of violence. Considering the entire plot is centered around a live-action battle in which people kill one another on television, the movie does an impeccable job of insinuating violence without ever actually making you watch someone get stabbed or bludgeoned to death. There is very little blood. I know it was only done to get a PG-13 rating, but I still appreciate it.

Even with all the improvements over the first movie, at the end of the day, it's still essentially an action movie. An action movie with a legitimate plot, but an action movie nevertheless.

Final word: I hope I can remember how good this movie was when I'm forced to sit through two parts of the third one.

Related posts: The Hunger Games (2012)

April 1, 2014

Admission (2013)

Tina Fey, Paul Rudd

I've never really thought of myself as much of a rebel, but I don't like 30 Rock. (Gasp!) And some of you may know my feelings on Judd Apatow movies (which of course, almost always include Paul Rudd). Which I guess, makes me an outlier of mainstream America because it seems like everywhere I turn, Tina Fey is being toasted as the savior of comedy and Paul Rudd's face is inescapable. [Notable exception: Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin, which is, in fact, salvation of both comedy and political sanity.]

Enter: this movie.

I thought it was almost guaranteed to be bad. Between a seemingly lame plot and so-so actors, I thought I was in for a Baby Mama experience. (Side rant: has anyone ever actually tried to sit through an episode of Parks and Recreation? The funniest thing about the show is this review I once read where the critic said "there were episodes of Joey that were more amusing." Ouch.)

But I was wrong, because I was overlooking one very important fact: Paul Rudd makes almost any movie mediocre. Seriously. You know how Hollywood is always looking for bankable actors who can pull in $100M at the box office? He is not that guy. But he is the guy who can make almost any romantic comedy, no matter how lame the plot, into a decent Friday night date movie that you won't be angry you spent 2 hours watching. You probably won't be having sex at the end of the movie either, but hey, he's not a miracle worker. He's like an old thermos - everything ends up at the same lukewarm temperature. With the rare exception of Clueless, I imagine if he were ever cast in a great movie, he'd pull it down to this same mediocre level. I mean, think about - can you really distinguish a difference in the quality level between say, This is 40, Wanderlust, and How Do You Know?

At it's best, this movie is awkward and funny and everything I imagine people see in Tina Fey on a regular basis. At it's worst, it's predictable and cheesy. So really, it's just another romantic comedy, labeled as a "dramedy" because there are a few serious moments in the movie, so you know, better put it into a whole separate genre!

Final word: Passable.