Ender's Game

I've been waiting for this one since I read the book in 1985! To me, the casting is perfect and the ambitious production values match the book's phenomenal success. If you've read it you know this is Nirvana for a lover of computer generated imaging: Space ships, free-floating trainees in a gravity-free environment, a decimated planet, futuristic living quarters, the list goes on and on.

Ender is so called because in this future world, families are only permitted two children: He is a third, AND he is gifted. This has not slipped by the powers that be, because they need a gifted new tactician to help them destroy their sworn enemy.

We see:
  • Harrison Ford ("Indiana Jones" and "42") is Colonel Graff, absolutely determined to annihilate the enemy, once and for all; collateral damage can go to blue blazes. Once again, Ford has to earn his salary: He is saddled with a few bits of really lame dialogue.
  • Asa Butterfield ("Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and "Hugo") is our eponymous hero: intelligent, ethical and focused. He has to straddle the gap between the teenage world of bullying and the adult world of interplanetary warfare. This talented kid must have a terrific agent!
  • Viola Davis ("The Help" and "Prisoners") is Major Gwen Anderson, the only heart in a heartless situation. This actress always impresses me; there is a moment as she leaves a room... BRILLIANT!
  • Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit" and "Romeo and Juliet") is Ender's friend Petra, she's there for him when he's assigned to a hostile classroom. Petra is a better role for Steinfeld than Juliet.
  • Ben Kingsley ("Hugo" and "Iron Man 3") is Mazer Rackham, a seasoned fighter drafted to coach our youngster in the ways of the enemy. Why did they choose this accent for this character? ...hmmm...
Rated PG-13, youngsters can see other youngsters fight an intergalactic battle (the rest of us will suspend disbelief). To me, all the CGI in the world is no substitute for a good story. Here, courtesy of writer/director Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), we have a really good story, albeit a bit far-fetched, so the CGI works just fine for me. The cinematography by Donald McAlpine offers everything from battling spaceships to Butterfield's eyelashes.

I'm ready for the obvious sequel.
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Here is a sample:
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About Time

From Richard Curtis, the creative soul who gave us "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually," we have an R-rated romantic comedy that satisfies our need for the occasional outing that features unabashedly happy families, solid marriages and well-loved children. Plus, it boasts the most hilarious wedding reception I think I've ever seen.

A young man inherits a family trait that allows him to replay key moments in time and change them to his advantage. We start to chortle whenever he says "Would you please excuse me for a moment?"

It features:
  • Domhnall Gleeson ("Anna Karenina") is Tim, the fellow who can manipulate time, but who can't foretell some of the results. You can see the warm intelligence in his eyes.
  • Rachel McAdams ("The Vow") is Mary, the appealing object of his affections. This Canadian actress is no stranger to relationships with time travelers ("The Time Traveler's Wife"); but we laugh when her Mary insists she won't take off her panties for Scotland! (You'll love that scene.)
  • Bill Nighy ("Blow Dry") is Bill's father. Dad is a cautious veteran of this phenomenon. This character is droll, wise, and a great father.
  • Lindsay Duncan (LOTS of British TV) Her sweetly ferocious Mum fooled me. I actually thought I was watching the French actress Julie Delpy!
  • Lydia Wilson (British TV) is Kit Kat, Tim's rambunctious sister who causes a LOT of turmoil.
  • Mitchell Mullen ("RED 2") is Mary's father, Fitz, who is mentally out to lunch much of the time.
The plot becomes fairly complex so it can become a challenge to follow if you have any hearing problems because much of it is either murmured or whispered. The script is witty and warm but there were times I needed captions; I know I'll LOVE my DVD! Yes, I'll own this one.
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Here is a preview:
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12 Years a Slave

Let's get this out of the way first: Chiwetel Ejiofor is pronounced "Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for." You will hear it many times during the awards season.

Based on his book written in 1854, this best seller told how Solomon Northup, born a free (educated) black man in New York, was abducted in Washington DC, sold into slavery and his travails that followed. For one thing, he had to conceal his literacy or be killed. The screenplay is by John Ridley ("Red Tails"), with the much-acclaimed Steve McQueen ("Shame") as director.

We have always heard that power corrupts. I would argue that it's the ABUSE of power that is so corrosive, not the power itself. In my opinion, that is what is illustrated here.

Look at the cast:
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Salt") is brilliant as Solomon Northup, the fellow whose misfortunes we must watch. This actor, born in England to Nigerian parents, is a terrific chameleon, a master of dialects, and a clever fellow who sang "These Boots are Made for Walkin' " as a fetching drag queen in "Kinky Boots." I'm a big fan.
  • Lupita Nyong'o (some TV) is Patsey, a fellow slave, subjected to every demeaning scheme her cruel owners can devise.
  • Quvenzhané Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") is Northup's daughter Margaret. Her name is pronounced "Qua-ven-zhah-nay."
  • Michael Fassbender ("Prometheus") is excellent as Edwin Epps, a slave owner. He illustrates the dehumanizing effects that slavery has on both slaves and their owners. This German-born actor has worked non stop in America in both movies and television since he first appeared in 2001.
  • Sarah Paulson (Lots of TV) is his wife, who is every bit as cruel in her own sweet genteel way as her loathsome husband.
This has a huge cast, and we see an interesting series of cameos which feature Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Paul Dano, to name a few.

This is 134 loooong R-rated minutes, with only two teeny scraps of humor, some nudity and far too many bloody whippings. I reached horror overload about halfway in: I saw enough lashings, beatings, hangings, rapes and humiliations to last me a lifetime.

This movie is very capably done, both Fassbender and Ejiofor should be short-listed for Academy nominations, but the script itself was a bit of overkill. Sometimes too much brutality is just too much, the audience gets numb. Be warned....
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Here is a link to a trailer:
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Last Vegas

What a cast! And directed by Jon Turteltaub ("National Treasure" and "While You Were Sleeping"). How can we lose? Well....

Three old buddies want to throw a bachelor party for their last single pal, so off to Vegas they go! This geriatric PG-13 fling looks at what happens in Vegas and what probably should have stayed there. Too many bikinis, too many gyrating bottoms, too many prostate jokes, too many strobe lights, and too many silicone bosoms, but the strength of a long-time friendship ultimately endures.

Look at this outdated Rat Pack and their cohorts:
  • Robert De Niro ("The Family") is Paddy, a guy who is still in mourning for his wife. This pugnacious guy can really hold a grudge...
  • Morgan Freeman ("Oblivion") Archie has packed his pill case and has programmed his cell phone to remind him to take his meds.
  • Michael Douglas ("Behind the Candelabra") is Billy with the fake tan and the fake hair, never married, never really wanted to... ...except that once....
  • Kevin Kline ("Darling Companion") when Sam is given a Get Out of Jail Free card from his wife, opportunities beckon.
  • Mary Steenburgen ("30 Rock") if Diana ever makes it big in show biz, she will be the first to be surprised.
  • Romany Malco (lots of TV) Lonnie will always cater the best party for the biggest tipper.
  • Jerry Ferrara ("Think Like a Man") Dean really blew it, so our heroes make him think he has offended the Mob!
Eventually this bawdy and profane outing began to wear on me. I'm not a big fan of insult humor or the ogling of young bodies, so despite laughing out loud a few times, I found myself wondering what Dan Fogelman ("Crazy, Stupid, Love") had in mind when he wrote the script: Comedy? Drama? Social commentary on aging? Hmmm....

This is a pleasant way to spend 105 minutes, but you won't remember much about it in a couple of days.
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Here is a preview:
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We are in a small town in Iowa to witness the finals in the annual butter-carving contest. The perennial winner has agreed not to compete in the future, so his ambitious wife has stepped up to the plate for next year's competition. In the meantime we have a newcomer, a little girl who has discovered her own talent; her adoptive parents are totally supportive. (She hasn't unpacked her suitcase yet, because of her past history as a foster child.)

The culture in small-town Iowa is naturally the butt of a lot of jokes from sophisticated Hollywood, but my favorite character is the car dealer who agrees to help that ambitious wife sabotage that little girl's entry. As I watched, I kept thinking he reminded me of Hugh Jackman....

Here are some of the players:
  • Ty Burrell ("Modern Family") is that talented (but now retired) sculptor. He hasn't been entirely faithful to...
  • Jennifer Garner ("The Invention of Lying") his wife who intended to use his string of victories to generate a political career.
  • Yara Shahidi (Lots of TV) is that talented newcomer to the butter-sculpting community.
  • Alicia Silverstone (Lots of TV) is her adoring new mother, happy to adopt such a beautiful little girl and help her express her inner sculptor.
  • Rob Corddry ("Warm Bodies") is her new daddy, supportive and proud of his bright little girl.
  • Olivia Wilde ("Rush") is the stripper who had a fling with the butter-carving champion. She tells the little girl she works at Barnes & Noble.
  • ...and Hugh Jackman ("Wolverine") speaks pure Midwestern American. Whatta guy! His prayers to Jesus are heartfelt and very, very funny.
This R-rated outing (language and sexual situations) is sappy and predictable, but who cares; it's heartwarming and satisfying.
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Here is a preview:
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The Fifth Estate

When I first read of WikiLeaks, my initial impression of Julian Assange was that he was an egotistical jerk. Because this R-rated, dramatized account of this cultural phenomenon is from the perspective of his former collaborator Daniel Berg, I found no reason to change my mind. In May, 2013, I reviewed a so-so documentary on the same topic, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" but I will say in its defense, it didn't have a spooky Benedict Cumberbatch doing his chilly portrayal of Assange.

Depending on your point of view, this audacious hacker and his army of anonymous volunteers exposed states' secrets and confidential files that jeopardized agents and shocked the world, therefore he is either a hero or a villain.

  • Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock") is Julian Assange, a fellow who keeps offering different reasons why his hair is white. In my opinion, this thorny fellow may have a touch of Aspergers.
  • Daniel Brühl ("Rush") is Daniel Berg, an acolyte and eventually a skeptic who believes in Assange's original premise of total trans- parency for governments.
  • David Thewlis ("War Horse") is Nick Davies with The Guardian. He speaks for all of us when he questions the morality of the press exposing undercover agents and their families to reprisals.
  • Peter Capaldi ("In the Loop") is the voice for print journalism, he expresses the clash between ethics and the need for profit.
  • Dan Stevens ("Downton Abbey") is another member of the press. His admiration for Assange begins to falter.
  • Anthony Mackie ("Runner Runner") is one of the confounded U.S. officials. The sheer numbers of WikiLeaks' Internet activity boggles his brain.
This one went up in my estimation when I learned that Assange HATES it! He is, as of this writing (October, 2013), still hiding in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

I didn't particularly like the script, it was too contrived and could have been far more thought provoking, but Cumberbatch gave me the willies and Laura Linney along with Stanley Tucci added class to the mix! If you didn't see the documentary, this will at least get you up to speed.
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Here is a link to a preview:
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Machete Kills

Another audacious chapter in Robert Rodriquez's ridiculous, profane, gory franchise. Make no mistake, this R-rated blood-splattered slaughter- fest had us hooting with laughter from the first "Coming Attractions." This is about Mexican drug cartels, double agents, the CIA and the President of the United States. Oh...and one muy feo hombre who has done it all. (Watch this ugly man's eyes when they hang him!)

These folks clearly were having a blast:
  • Danny Trejo ("Machete") The invincible Machete "don't tweet!"
  • Jessica Alba ("Sin City") Sartana is there when he needs her.
  • Michelle Rodriguez ("Fast & Furious") Luz still runs a taco stand.
  • Amber Heard ("The Rum Diary") is Miss San Antonio.
  • Sofia Vergara (Lots of TV) is Desdemona, a madam to die for.
  • Mel Gibson ("Tim") Luz sees the end of the world and hates it.
  • Alexa Vega ("Spy Kids") is KillJoy; her name says it all.
  • Demian Bichir ("The Bridge") is Mendez, BOTH of them!
  • Walt Goggins ("Justified") is La Camaleón 1
  • Cuba Gooding Jr ("Don Jon") is La Camaleón 2
  • Lady Gaga (some TV) is La Camaleón 3
  • Antonio Banderas ("Desperado") is La Camaleón 4 (great chuntaros!)
  • Carlos Estevez aka Charlie Sheen ("Anger Management") Mr. President needs help from our hero.
There is no way to justify the glee with which our screening audience greeted each politically incorrect, grisly scene. Absurd action piled upon absurd action, no nudity, lots of bloody fisticuffs and senseless gunfire, but Machete's weapon of choice? Yup, you guessed it...a machete. All that blowie uppie stuff is still for sissies!
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Here is a sample:
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Captain Phillips

Now THIS is what film-making is all about! With Paul Greengrass ("United 93" and the "Bourne" franchise) at the helm, we can expect a PG-13, white-knuckle ride. We see the massive US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama container ship taken over by four scrawny machine-gun-toting pirates in a puny little boat off the coast of Somalia in 2009, the first American ship hijacked in two hundred years.

The script by Billy Ray ("The Hunger Games") is based on (Captain) Richard Phillips book, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea" which depicts these events from his personal experience.

Although we are already familiar with the situation from 2009 news accounts, we see the wildly contrasting lives of our principals: the high- tech environment enjoyed by modern maritime workers, as opposed to the starkly marginal survival of the Somalis who are ordered to "Go get us some money!" I was fascinated by the ubiquity of khat, the mildly addictive African narcotic used in Muslim countries because alcohol is forbidden. Chewing a khat leaf dulls the appetite, which makes life there a bit more endurable.

We have:
  • Tom Hanks ("Cloud Atlas") as our eponymous (and resourceful) hero, a fellow who insists he is anything BUT a hero. He says, "You just do what you have to do." ...but he does PLENTY, under extremely trying circumstances!
  • Barkhad Abdi in his first film role, plays Muse ("Moo say'"), the Somali captain of a primitive pirate boat, audacious and wily. After he collects his ransom, his ultimate goal is "to go to America."
  • Faysal Ahmed is Najee, a tall, gun-waving Somali who becomes increasingly frenzied as the full might and power of the United States military (WITH Navy SEALS!) surrounds their tiny lifeboat. Besides, they have chewed the last of their khat.
There were many wonderful characters but I won't devote any more space to them. Instead, I urge you to see the film and tell me if you agree that the last ten minutes should earn Mr. Hanks another Oscar.

Kudos for top-flight sound, photography, art direction, set design, script, and acting. I almost succumbed to the "Stockholm Syndrome," but I was really impressed by this one!
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This will give you some idea:
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Romeo and Juliet

This particular play is not in my top ten of William Shakespeare's tragedies, so I was encouraged to see that Julian Fellows ("Downton Abbey") tinkered with the script. It didn't hurt. In fact with one minor tweak, he made it a bit more accessible for today's audience.

As you already know, these teenage lovers are from families who are sworn enemies, but they hope their marriage might start to mend the rift. The Montagues and the Capulets are forerunners of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

We see:
  • Douglas Booth ("Pillars of the Earth") as Romeo, whose rash response to his friend's death launches this tragedy, is dismayed to realize that his name automatically makes him an enemy of her family. "What's in a name? A rose by any other name..."
  • Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit") as Juliet, the distaff side of our star-crossed duo. They have precious few moments together: "Anon, nurse! Anon!" (Let's hope she learns how to enunciate before she makes another film.)
  • Christian Cooke (lots of TV) is Mercutio, whose death has to be so wrenching we understand how Romeo feels. This is a vital role!
  • Damian Lewis ("Homeland") is Lord Capulet, determined to keep his precious daughter out of Romeo's hot hands. (Get a load of his haircut.)
  • Stellan Skarsgård ("The Avengers") is the Prince of Verona. A wise ruler, indeed!
  • Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") is The Priest, our enabler who wants to see these sweet lovers in each other's arms. His is far and away the best depiction of this role I have ever seen, and I've seen this many times!
  • Leslie Manville ("Cranford") is The Nurse, another enabler who loves her young charge so much she only wants to see her happy! What a concept...
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee ("The Road") is Benvolio, the sweet well- intentioned young fellow who rushes off to bear those ill-fated tidings to Romeo. Just remember: "The road to hell is paved...."
I have several observations: 1) It's always risky to cast a hero who is prettier than the heroine. He looks like John the Baptist by Caravaggio. 2) The locations in Italy (Mantua, Veneto, Lazio, Verona and Rome) are amazing, although some of the sets are NOT. 3) Giamatti has set a new standard with his portrayal of The Priest, particularly when he slaps our hero. 4) You do NOT gallop a horse on cobblestones. Watch Romeo's horse slip as it comes around the corner. Yikes!

This PG-13 film is done with loving respect for the language (yes, you will hear some of the original iambic pentameter), and no lack of talent. Expect lots of swordplay but no profanity, nudity or blowie uppie stuff. Impressive.
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Here is a teaser:
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Runner Runner

Director Brad Furman, who also directed the excellent "Lincoln Lawyer" left me feeling a bit disappointed. Maybe it was his casting choices; I'm not sure. This is an R-rated flick about gambling and as we know, "the house" always wins.

We watch:
  • Ben Affleck ("Argo") as Ivan Block, a sly entrepreneur who runs "the house" offshore. He is charming and ruthless. He has two hobbies: sailing his yacht and feeding his pet alligators.
  • Justin Timberlake ("Trouble With the Curve") is Richie Furst, a clever on-line gambler who spots some cheating on Block's web- site. He knows a gambler who owns "the house" has no need to cheat, so tracks down Block to let him know one of his employees has tweaked the program.
  • Gemma Arterton ("Quantum of Solace") is set decoration for most of this 91-minute crime drama, although she does play a key role...eventually...
  • Anthony Mackie ("Pain and Gain") is FBI Agent Shavers, an ambitious but frustrated fellow who has no jurisdiction on the Caribbean island where most of the action takes place.
  • John Heard (Lots of TV) is our hero's father, an inveterate gambler who becomes a pawn in Block's chess game.
This one had me covering my eyes because I remembered the blatant foreshadowing. Expect lots of profanity, some gunfire and fisticuffs but no blowie uppie stuff. In my opinion, Timberlake will have to keep looking for a vehicle that will make him look good....
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Take a peek:
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I've been reading about this one for quite some time, so I've been eager to see if it's the real deal. Two Oscar winners in a two-person film should be impressive.

Directed by three-time Oscar nominee Alfonso Cuarón ("Children of Men") with a script by Mr. Cuarón and his son Jonás, this PG-13 science fiction thriller takes us to outer space where a medical engineer and an astronaut become untethered from their crippled space shuttle.

Drama ensues....
  • Sandra Bullock ("The Heat") in the role of a lifetime, is a brand new technician with only six months of training under her belt. As the publicity says, she has recently lost a child and is trying to cope with her grief. Her language still reverts to her life with a youngster, e.g., when confronted by some confusing options, she automatically says, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe..."
  • George Clooney ("The Descendants") is the flight commander. He is a major chatterbox: funny, informed, and very smart. He consistently uses humor to diffuse the situation. I still want to know what happened in New Orleans at the Mardi Gras!
I didn't like our heroine's little squawks of terror, but my biggest problem is with credibility: that Russian Soyuz station is within visual range, as is the one from India. On the other hand, the special effects that illustrate the lack of gravity are exceptional. Objects which float away or drift into view remind us what a boon gravity is for us and why zero gravity is such a challenge. I tend to find films of this nature unsettling, and this one is certainly no different. BTW, that parachute was a nightmare!
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Here is a sneak peek:
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