Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game had so much going for it, what with a very intelligent story that is intelligently told, along with extraordinary effects, and with deeply affecting characters. Thus, it comes close to having serious impact and is a very entertaining movie.

That said, it was hurried and didn’t spend enough time on Ender’s journey. Granted, there was no real way to do justice to the incredible source material, but there were enough missteps with the film that this fan is a little disappointed.

You will enjoy Ender’s Game if you liked:
Super 8
Inception
Hanna
The Hunger Games

Here’s a trailer:

And the deets:

Released November 1, 2013

Written by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card

Directed by Gavin Hood

Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Jimmy Pinchak, Aramis Knight, and Nonso Anozie

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Ender’s Game takes place in a future Earth after the Formics, a race of war-like aliens, attacked and nearly destroyed humanity on Earth. A great hero beat them, but now humanity expects them to return. So they are training people from a very young age to be soldiers in the battle against these critters. Indeed, they are training children.

Ender (Butterfield) is one of these. He is insanely smart and has grown up with his brother, Peter (Pinchak) being constantly cruel to him, and with his sister Valentine (Breslin) being a source of love and friendship.

But Ender is now off to Battle School, where Graff (Ford) believes Ender will flourish. Graff is certain that Ender is the answer. Anderson (Davis) thinks Graff is too hard on Ender. Rackham (Kingsley) is the hero who beat the Formics last time.

Ender pulls together a team, notably including Petra (Steinfeld) and Bean (Knight). These are all incredibly gifted young people and Ender proves their mettle by leading them to great victories in Battle School, particularly in the battle room.

The story of Ender’s training hurtles along until we start seeing that Ender is having odd experiences with dreams and visions that involve Formics. When the climax of the film happens, this connection he’s been having helps him prepare to be in the next movie.

Critique

The filmmakers, particularly Gavin Hood, were in far too much of a hurry to capture the crucial scenes of the book and translate them to celluloid. This resulted in a movie that moves far too fast for us to really ever be in Ender’s head. We also don’t have nearly enough time with the battle room, the single coolest thing about the film. This also means that the arc that Ender goes through doesn’t have nearly the impact it needs to have.

So if the movie had slowed down a little, it would have been better.

Lost in the movie is the sub-plot where Peter and Valentine Wiggin essentially scheme to run the Earth’s political discussion. Also lost is the heart and soul.

Which means we have great, beautiful, awesome scenes that are connected by a character we don’t have time to come care deeply about.

Ender’s Game is still entertaining and at times all kinds of fun. It’s also visually wonderful. The joy in the battle room sequences makes us ache for more and the rest of the movie just doesn’t make up for that lack.

Sigh.

At least the performances are good, with standout work done by Steinfeld and Ford.

Content warnings: Some violence and some salty language.

Writing: 4          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

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Won’t Back Down

Won’t Back Down is not a story about how a determined mom beat the bad guy teachers’ union. It’s a story about how two determined mothers/educators refuse to accept the status quo and inspire hundreds of other to reevaluate their place and role in the education of their children.

It’s a very affecting and effective film, made stronger by the acting of Viola Davis and, surprisingly, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Here’s a trailer:

Now the deets:

Released September 28, 2012

Written by Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz

Directed by Daniel Barnz

Starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Alyn Lind, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Oscar Isaac, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, and Marianne Jean Baptiste

Rated: PG

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Jamie Fitzpatrick’s (Gyllenhaal) daughter, Malia (Lind), struggles mightily to read– likely due to dyslexia. Malia’s school is a criminally underperforming school, rated as a ‘failing’ school by the state. Teachers there generally want to do a good job, with the exception of Malia’s teacher who is only still a teacher due to union protection. This teacher is despicably bad.

Nona Alberts (Davis), a former teacher of the year, teaches at Malia’s school and has been steadily losing her faith in the system, partly due to her son’s (Brown) struggles with his schoolwork. She wants to make a change for her boy, as does her husband (Reddick), but they disagree on the best thing to do for the lad.

Jamie does her best to find the right way to help her daughter, but discovers that the system is so ungainly and unresponsive that she has zero alternative due to the fact that she has very limited financial resources. You have to admire this woman; she’s got two jobs, is a Steelers fan, and will do anything to get her daughter the help she needs.

Through a frustrating day of inquiries, Jamie finds out that there is a tiny chance that she and other parents could take over the administration of the school, potentially booting the union and having hiring/firing as well as curriculum power. But Jamie needs to get teachers behind the move, so she starts by doing her best to recruit Nona.

Nona is torn between wanting to live up to what she knows is right for students and keeping her job and her friends happy and secure in their jobs. Of course she opts to join forces with Jamie, setting up some tense moments with her colleagues.

Jamie and Nona are a formidable team who simply don’t know when to quit. They recruit teachers and parents, despite the momentum of entropy, and make headway. The main conflict Won’t Back Down is between the the team of Jamie and Nona and the union and the way things have always been done.  But the more important conflict, and the reason why this film is effective, is in the hearts of the teachers, administrators, and parents.

The film is based on a true story, so I bet you can guess how it turns out.

More importantly, it takes place in Pittsburgh, so Steelers paraphernalia is in almost every scene. Glorious.

Critique

First things first: This movie is not anti-union. It happily points out the weaknesses of teachers’ unions in their current manifestation. It also demonstrates the good things that a teachers’ union does. Won’t Back Down is in fact quite evenhanded when it comes to teachers’ unions, and any interpretation contrary is a fascinating look at the critics who call it anti-union.

This reviewer has difficulty watching Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her acting too often seems designed to disgust or garner some other strong reaction. Gyllenhaal is understated in this film, delivering a very fine, if not nuanced, performance. She’s determined and fairly single-level. But that works, since Jamie is decidedly single-minded.

One note about writing regarding the character of Jamie: the writer did a great job giving her a vocabulary that includes words that don’t really exist, without making an issue of it– providing more nuance to the character. For example, Jamie often called people ‘trepidatious,’ which isn’t a word. Nobody calls Jamie on this, which is fine.

Viola Davis may have the best slow burn of any woman doing films today. The building of her frustration to passion to fury is just so perfect, and her emotional release of that is blindingly moving. You can’t take your eyes off her. Her body language, her face, her smart and warm eyes– they are all infused with the character she inhabits. This is another Oscar-worthy performance.

The writing is good, with a few nods to melodrama and character epiphany that felt a bit artificial, particularly with Oscar Isaac’s love interest character. The emotional payoff of the film is also just a bit artificial, but by that time the audience has been waiting for it long enough that it’s effective.

Won’t Back Down is an effective movie about the power we have to bring change to the world around us if we dig deep. It’s a little shallow on Jamie’s end, but otherwise it depicts characters that make us care deeply about them. We hate the people we’re supposed to hate and we love those we are meant to love. Also, a hat tip to Emily Lind, who plays Malia. She is stupendous, as most child actors tend to be.

Content warnings: Only some language and suggested sensuality.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4.5

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The Help

If you are looking for a stunningly acted film that affects you in myriad ways and gets you thinking and cheering, but has a rather lackluster script, The Help is that movie. I adored this movie. Also, it only worked because the actors in it did a simply marvelous job.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released on August 10, 2011

Written by Tate Taylor with the novel by Kathryn Stockett

Directed by Tate Taylor

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, and Allison Janney

*     *     *     *     *

I have to start this review by saying I love Allison Janney. She was such a delight in Mr. Sunshine, the very underappreciated Matthew Perry TV show. I am still sad that the show didn’t get more of a shot.

Also, Emma Stone. Need I say anything more?

Story

The Help follows a young woman named Skeeter (Stone) who arrives back in her hometown having graduated from college and being full of journalistic and novelistic hopes and dreams. She lands a job at the local paper continuing a popular cleaning advice column. The problem is that she has no idea how to clean, having grown up in a house where a black maid did pretty much all of the work.

So Skeeter decides to turn to the maid of her best friend. Her best friend’s name is Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and Hilly is not very nice. She is one of the many who sees the black ‘help’ as less than human and entitled to nothing. Hilly’s maid is named Aibileen and is played by Viola Davis. Aibileen is, in fact, the narrator of this story.

Aibileen is happy to help Skeeter with the column, but before long, the project gains a new focus. Skeeter decides she wants to write a book from the perspective of the heretofore invisible ‘help’ wherein their story is told and people learn what it means to be a black person in the culture of the day.

Aibileen is not on board with this new project. She knows that if she starts speaking out, she and her loved ones will be targeted, beat up, and possibly killed.

Obviously, things happen that make the new project take off. But the point is that this movie tells a very heartfelt story that we are all familiar with, but puts such a lovely face on that story and is so beautifully told by the actors that it moves you and keeps you glued to the faces of these fine people.

Critique

The first major problem with The Help is that once again, whitey helped the black people overcome. The film glosses over some pretty profound issues, but does throw a few good punches.

Now for acting. Emma Stone radiates intelligence, naivete, pureness of intent, and compassion. She is just perfect in her part.

Viola Davis is the solid, emotional rock of this film and she draws the viewer into Aibileen’s soul. She deserves an Oscar today.

Octavia Spencer plays Minny, Aibileen’s best friend. She gets some of the funniest and triumphant moments, but she isn’t a comical character– she is a person with a personality, family, fear, courage, and a great deal of soul. You love her and want the best for her. Octavia Spencer deserves an Oscar today too.

Jessica Chastain. Gosh. Her character is a cliche written upon a convenient trope. But Chastain knocks trope and cliche out and fills the screen with her presence and power. I loved Celia and felt like her character was motivated wonderfully– despite the failings of the story itself.

Bryce Dallas Howard played Hilly, the chief antagonist. She nailed it. She understood Hilly– her fear, spine, inadequacies, anger at the world– so well. I think Bryce has a continued great future.

Allison Janney oh how I love you. You are lovely and smart and you took the character of Skeeter’s mom past the easy stasis that she obviously embodied in the script and filled her out into a real human being.

But the writing? The movie is full of cliche. Full of trope. Full of convenience. Full of total predictability. However, it is satisfying, complete and very compelling. All because of these actors. They deserve every kudo we can give them. And it’s a story by a woman, about women, and filled with women. Men don’t bail anybody out. I appreciate that.

This is an unusual review, but The Help is an unusual film. Such a simplistic and potentially bad script, but the acting. Oh the acting. These ladies put on a clinic.

Highly recommended.

Content warnings: Only a little harsh language.

Writing: 3          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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