Category Archives: movie reviews

Movie Review: Ender’s Game

enders_game_2013_movie-wideOrson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is an entry point for many to the realm of science-fiction.   The acclaimed novel won the Hugo award when it was published in 1985 and many fans wondered for years when and if we’d ever get a movie version.

It took close to thirty years, but Hollywood has finally found a way to adapt Ender’s Game for the silver screen.

Part of the wait was allowing technology to catch up with Card’s imagination (and that of his readers) to fully render the universe of Ender Wiggin on the silver screen.  Another part was finding young actors who could help bring the characters to life on the silver screen.

That day has finally arrived as Ender’s Game hits theater this week.  And to answer the biggest burning question in many fans’ minds – yes, the movie was worth the wait.

Director and script writer Gavin Hood distills the novel down to its essential narrative points and hits all the high (and necessary) points.

Fifty years after humanity drove back a potential invasion at the hands of the Formics, Earth is still living in fear that the aliens may return for a second attempt.  The military is training children in the hopes of finding and grooming the ultimate tactician who can not only fend off another attack but also prevent any future invasion attempts.  Enter Ender Wiggin, the third child born into his family (population restrictions only allow for two) who just may be the long-awaited hope for Earth.

At least that’s what Colonel Hyrum Graff hopes when Ender is enlisted to the orbiting Battle School.  Young recruits are immersed in the history of the epic battle as well as put through intense competition in the Battle Room.  Ender is moved from team to team within the school, winning various battles and showing off his tactical skills as a leader and strategist.

The cast for the film is well chosen, from Harrison Ford’s work as Hyram Graff to Asa Butterfield’s work as Ender. Butterfield ably carries the film as Ender and proves to be an ideal choice for the iconic role.  Of course, it’s helped that he has an Oscar-nominated young actress in Hailee Stanfield as Petra to work with.  The rest of the young cast rises to the occasion as well and does solid work in the film.

Hill’s script wisely distills down a lot of what happens in the book into its essential narrative points.  The film charts Ender’s rise through the school as well as introducing us to most of the supporting character who will help Ender is his quest to defeat the Formics.   Fan favorites (and later expanded into their own novels) Petra and Bean are well served by the script, with Petra getting a solid amount of screen time and development.    (Bean isn’t so fortunate).

Visually stunning, Ender’s Game is one of those movies that demands to be seen on the big screen with a Dolby surround system backing it.   For the preview, the film was shown on an IMAX screen with the state-of-the-art sound system rumbling and enhancing every epic space battle and moments to its fullest, making you feel like you were immersed in the universe of Ender Wiggin.

And while there are a lot of epic battles and superbly rendered effects sequences, the film doesn’t forget some of the philosophical core of the original source material.  The film isn’t afraid to address some of the bigger questions raised by the original source material (I won’t say more because it would ruin several of the twists from the final hour or so of the film).  However, the movie does diminish the roles of Ender’s siblings Valentine and Peter a good deal as well as removing an entire subplot featuring these two characters.   (Maybe that’s something for the special features on the inevitable DVD and Blu-Ray release).

As a fan of the original source novel, I was pleased to see how well the big-screen version of Ender’s Game worked.  The film is not a perfect one, but it does a solid job of translating the main plotline of the novel to the screen.  My hope is that movie-goers seeing the movie may be intriguing enough to pick and up read the original source material and then want to move on to the (even better) sequel, Speaker for the Dead.

It took close to thirty years to get Ender’s Game on our screens.  And this adaptation proves to have been worth the wait.

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Movie Reviews: Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2

cloudy-with-a-chance-of-meatballs-2The original Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs was an unexpected pleasure – a bright, quirky animated movie that was a lot of fun and never overstayed its welcome.

The follow-up installment tries to recapture the zany spirit of the original but unfortunately it falls a bit short.

Picking up moments after the original ended, Cloudy 2 finds Flint accepting his dream job from childhood hero, Chester V.  Chester V had his own TV show that inspired the young Flint and now runs the scientific research corporation The Live Corp Company.

Turns out that Chester is less interested in any of Flint’s new ideas and more interested in gaining control of the Flint’s device from the first film, which is malfunctioning on their island home and creating sentient food.  Flint and his gang of friends from the first movie head to the island to try and shut it down.

Filled with lots of puns, Cloudy 2 doesn’t quite have the same spark the original film did.   Part of that stems from the fact that the movie doesn’t hide the fact that Chester V is a bad guy from the first time he appears on screen making it feel like we’re just marking time until Flint puts all the pieces together and quits alienating his friends and family.

As the movie developed, I found myself wishing the film would concentrate more on the rift the developed between Flint and his father, leading to his father taking a group of sentient pickles out fishing. (Turns out they both share a love of sardines).  This storyline leads to some nice moments in the end of the movie, but you may find that you want more from this and less silly puns of the names of food animals.

Large chunks of this film feel more like reheated leftovers than a fully satisfying new meal.

And while young viewers will probably eat the movie up (it’s visually spectacular), older audiences may find themselves checking their watches.

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 isn’t terrible and it was certainly a greater pleasure to watch than last year’s Sony Animation release of Hotel Transylvania.   But it didn’t quite live up to the fun of the original in the series.

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Movie Review: The Smurfs 2

smurfs-2-posterFans of the original Smurfs will probably eat up the Smurfs 2 like a bunch of Smurf-berries.   Detractors of the original will most likely want to lob the Smurf-berries at the screen.

The Smurfs 2 isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year (that distinction still goes to the Evil Dead reboot), but it certainly won’t make my top ten either.  It’s a pleasant enough way to spend ninety or so minutes, but the film must doesn’t’ work as well as other family-targeted summer fare like Despicable Me 2 or Monster’s University.

Thanks to the power of YouTube, Gargamel has become a world-famous magical act, packing in audiences across the globe.   There’s just one problem – his act’s magic is power by Smurf-essence and he’s running low.

In order to replenish is supply, Gargamel plots to kidnap Smurfette and force her to reveal the formula that turned her into a real Smurf at the end of the last movie.  His plan is helped by the fact that in their enthusiasm to plan a surprise party for her, the entire Smurf village has made Smurfette feel unappreciated.

He’s helped by his two grey-skinned “Naughties” who were created at the same time as Smurfette.  The trio bond and Gargamel seeks to exploit this to move forward his nefarious plot.

In order to rescue her, Papa Smurf, Clumsy, Vanity and Grouchy all head back to the real world (first New York, then Paris) to convince her to come back home again.

And hilarity ensues.

There’s nothing patently terrible about The Smurfs 2, but there’s nothing patently great about it either.

Of course, I say this having only had to see the movie once and not having children who will demand to watch it over and over again when the film eventually hits home theater.

There were a few amusing moments peppered throughout the script, most of them involving Azrael the cat being smarter than Gargamel.  The film’s theme about family is nicely done though a bit heavy-handed at times.

As I said before, not the best movie of the year, but certainly not the worst.

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Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

despicable-me-2-gru-is-kidnappedRetiring from a life of nefarious plots, Gru is content to focus on raising his three adopted daughters and having his formerly evil minions develop a new line of jams and jellies.

But as Despicable Me 2 begins, Gru finds himself thrust back into the world of evil-doers when a top secret base is stolen from the Arctic Circle. Gru is recruited to go undercover and try to discover the true perpetrator who is hiding out at the local mall.    His trio of girls are delighted that he’s been teamed with Lucy, who may be the antidote Gru needs for his loneliness and fear or dating.

The good news is Despicable Me 2 has everything in it that made the first one such a delight – Gru, the girls, Minions and, of course, the fart gun.

This animated summer film is a pure delight from beginning to end.  I haven’t laughed out loud this much or this often at movie all summer long.

Despicable Me 2 is just as delightful as the first one and while it may lack the edge the first one did (watching Gru go from evil genius to father figure was a nice arc), it fills that void with lots and lots of Minion jokes.  And just about all of those jokes hit home.

This is an animated film that you won’t mind sitting through with the young ones in your family.  Odds are there are a few jokes in there that will hit home for the older members of the audience and will go right over the younger audience members heads.

As to whether or not you’ll want to see the film in 3-D, I can say that while the film doesn’t have a sequence that takes advantage of all that 3-D can do like the original’s roller coaster sequence, there is still at least enough 3-D tomfoolery going on during the film’s ninety or so minutes that you won’t feel like the surcharge isn’t justified.   Like many CG animated films of recent years, this one was designed to be viewed in 3-D and, for the most part, it works.

Despicable Me 2 has energy, laughs and a heart.  Easily one of the best movies of the summer season.  And make sure you don’t get up to leave as the credits start to roll.

And did I mention the fart gun is back?!?

One small note:  At the screening I attended, several small children were a bit frightened by the ending sequence in which the Minions are turned evil.    Parents of younger kids (I’m thinking five and under) may be want to be ready to hold some hands, wipe some tears or take kids out when the Minions start turning purple.


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Movie Review: The Lone Ranger (2013)

LONE-RANGER_510x317The combination of Johnny Depp, Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer struck cinematic gold with the re-invention of the pirate movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.  The movie spawned a franchise for Disney, so it’s easy to see why the studio would be eager to team up with the trio again.

This time around, they’re trying to re-invent the Western and establish a new franchise for Depp in the form of The Lone Ranger.

Unfortunately, it appears that the trio isn’t quite as successful at capturing lightning in a bottle the second time around.

The Lone Ranger has its enjoyable moments, most of them confined to the last half hour of the film when it fully embraces its over-the-top, summer action blockbuster status. But between an opening action sequence and the Ranger fully accepting his calling and his destiny, the film lacks focus and runs on too long.   At close to two and a half hours, The Lone Ranger definitely overstays its welcome, regardless of how much fun Depp appears to be having playing Tonto in the film.

The story is told in a framing device with Depp as an older Tonto relating the legend of the Lone Ranger to a young man.  The framing device is revisited on occasion, delightfully pointing out some of the plot-holes in the film (for example, the kid is quick to note that Tonto gives no explanation for how he gets from a jail cell to free to help the Lone Ranger find his true path).    The Ranger in question is John Reid, who is returning to his frontier home after getting his degree.   John has lived in the shadow of his brother, who stayed at home and got the girl they both apparently had feelings for.  She apparently still has feelings for him as well.

When gang leader Butch Cavendish is sprung while on the way to face justice, John insists on being part of the part that goes along to recapture him.   The group is ambushed and everyone is apparently killed – except John.   With Tonto helping him, Reid assumes the mantle of the Lone Ranger, putting on a mask that was created by the two bullets that were meant for him.

There’s also an entire plotline about the coming of the railroad and the connection of a ruthless railroad baron to the Cavendish gang that helps propel the plot of the film.  The problem with the plotline is that it’s fairly apparent who the bad guys are long before the movie reveals each character’s motivations and plots.   We also find out that Tonto’s backstory is tied to this nefarious scheme as well, making the entire course of events feel a bit too coincidental for its own good.

At times, the Lone Ranger is clearly trying to evoke the spirit of the classic John Ford Westerns.   There are several shots in the film that feel like they’re lifted directly from Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers as well as some thematic similarities.  The thread of a love triangle involving brothers and the kidnapping of settlers by Native Americans feel like an attempt to pay homage to that classic film.  And while there are some stunning new shots of Monument Valley in the film, if you want a great Western, you would probably be better served to hunt up a copy of The Searchers.

If you want Depp channeling Captain Jack Sparrow as Tonto and Armie Hammer doing his best to be the stoic but conflicted Ranger, then The Lone Ranger may work.  As a summer action movie, it has its moments but as I said before the movie definitely overstays its welcome with the middle third of the film feeling like its treading a lot of water to get to the inevitable showdown between our heroes and the forces of evil in the film

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Movie Review: Star Trek into Darkness

StarTrekIntoDarkness_FinalUSPosterIt’s been four years since J.J. Abrams revitalized the Star Trek movie franchise and with each passing summer, expectations for the next voyage “where no man has gone before” have ratcheted up higher and higher.  Add to it the extreme secrecy surrounding certain plot elements and character identities and you’ve got a movie that I entered with pretty much the same feeling as I did the first revitalized Trek a few years ago — equal parts anticipation and apprehension.

Huge parts of me were hoping that Star Trek into Darkness would be to the Trek franchise what The Dark Knight was to the revitalized Batman franchise.

Lofty expectations like that are probably unfair.  But I’ll also say that Christopher Nolan didn’t make us wait four years for the next installment either.

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Movie Review: Iron Man 3

ironman3Anyone worried about a post-Avengers letdown can breathe a little easier – at least as far as Iron Man 3 is concerned.  The beginning of Marvel’s phase two of its movie empire begins on a high note with the best-in-the-series entry, Iron Man 3.

Set after the events of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 finds Tony Stark have a difficult time emotionally dealing with the events of last year’s huge hit.   Unable to sleep and obsessed with building an entire fleet of upgraded armors, Tony has isolated himself from the world and his friends.  What brings him back to the world is an attack  by the ruthless terrorist called the Mandarin on United States soil.  The blast puts Happy in the hospital in critical condition.  In a heated moment, Tony calls out the Mandarin on live television, swearing revenge and justice on the terrorist.

It’s one of multiple gripping moments during the course of Iron Man 3’s two hour plus running time.   And it’s one that is superbly played by actor Robert Downey, Jr., once again confirming what most of us have known since the original Iron Man installment – he’s the perfect actor to play Tony Stark and Iron Man.   Of course, it helps that Downey has a strong supporting cast who are all given a moment to shine in the sequel.

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Movie Review: The Croods

The_Croods_posterWhile Pixar is still the gold standard for computer animated films, Dreamworks Animation has slowly but assuredly been closing the gap with offerings like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.  And while their latest offering The Croods isn’t quite as much fun as How To Train Your Dragon, it’s still a solid, entertaining, fun animated movie that the the kids will adore and that adults won’t feel like their being forced to sit through.

In pre-historic times, the Crood family has stayed alive thanks to Grug’s (a well voice-cast Nicholas Cage) philosophy that they should fear everything and that danger lurks around every corner.  The family spends much of their time hiding out in their cave, venturing out only to find food every once in a while.  For the most part, the family is willing to go along with Grug, since many of the stories he relates about the outside world end up with various parties dying.   That is, except for his teenage daughter Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), who believes there’s more to the world than hiding in the cave and barely getting by.

One night, Eep sneaks out of the family cave and meets Guy, a boy who has the secret of fire and warns her that the world as they know it is coming to an end.  Eventually Guy is forced to take not only Eep but the entire Crood family with him on a trek to find higher ground and survive.  Of course, this sets up an inevitable conflict of leadership styles between Guy and Grug, most of which are effectively played for genuine laughs.

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Movie Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Years ago before the original Lord of the Rings trilogy hit theaters, I took part in an on-line discussion course for the original source material.  In the course of that discussion, one participant she was going to weep for every tiny plot point, side tangent  and character that was cut from J.R.R. Tolkien’s original source material.

Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I can’t help but think that participant is finally getting her wish.  Covering the first six chapters of the original novel, An Unexpected Journey does exactly what many of us feared would happen with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy–be so slavishly devoted to the material we’d get every single moment from the novel realized on screen.

It makes for a visually rich, textured film.  However, it doesn’t make for a very interesting one.  An Unexpected Journey wavers between some compelling, absorbing scenes and a bunch of scenes that, quite frankly, would have been better suited for an extended cut director’s version on DVD or Blu-Ray.  The best moments in the film come in the beginning as we set up the storyline and director Peter Jackson teases us with glimpses of the dragon Smaug and when Bilbo (a nicely chosen Martin Freeman) plays the game of riddles with Gollem (Andy Serkis, superb as always in a role that should get him an Oscar nod, but alas it won’t).

In between those, it feels like we’re along on a journey and have to see every footstep played out on screen, with every leaf on every tree digitally rendered and calling attention to itself.

Watching the first installment, I can’t help but wonder if this is a case of stretching the material so far that it’s going to snap under the strain once we see the entire trilogy finally released.

I’m sure Tolkien will disagree and I’ll confess that while I like Tolkien, I respect his contribution to fantasy more than I like it (at least on the printed page).  As a fan of the original trilogy and how well it trimmed the fat, making for a lean, understandable and enjoyable adaptation of the beloved fantasy trilogy, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by An Unexpected Journey.   I am hopeful that this is just the exposition leg of the trilogy and the next two installments will get back to what made Jackson’s original trilogy of films so magical.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its moments, but overall it’s not quite as magical as it could or should have been.

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Movie Review: Wreck It Ralph

For thirty years, Ralph has been the adversary in the classic hit video-game Fix It Felix.  Lonely and in search of a friend, Ralph is told by his fellow game inhabitants and several other classic video game villains that he’ll never be more than the bad guy.  Determined to me more than his programming, Ralph leaves the game in search of a gold medal that he believes will win him the friendship and respect of his fellow game inhabitants.

By going “turbo” (invading other games in the arcade), Ralph achieves his goal of getting a medal in one game, only to lose it in the brightly colored racing game, Sugar Rush to “glitch” Venellope.   Ralph and Venellope hatch a plan to help her win the race and get his medal back.

With Wreck It Ralph, Disney is attempting to do for video games what Toy Story did for toys.    And, for the most part, it succeeds though the film probably won’t be as well-regarded by adults as the Toy Story trilogy is.

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