A young-adult adaptation that challenges its audience, posthumous Gandolfini, and rock n' roll history
Summit Entertainment is the studio behind the recent young-adult mega-hit adaptations of the “Twilight” series of books and “The Hunger Games,” so it was with much trepidation and skepticism that I approached the company’s most recent stab at launching a kid-friendly sci-fi franchise, “Ender’s Game.”
Based on the widely revered 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card — who lately has become more famous for his anti-gay rights remarks than his writing — the future-set “Ender’s Game” won as many fans for its detailed depiction of military strategy as it did for its thorny moral questions. Rights to the movie and proposed scripts changed hands so many times since the novel’s publication that it became known as an “unfilmable” book.
Perhaps it took 28 years for people to accept the idea of a 10-year-old commander with the power and authority to command lethal military might, but after the kill-or-be-killed reality show of “The Hunger Games,” it doesn’t seem like such a stretch for today’s youth culture to imagine. Ultimately, what makes writer/director Gavin Hood’s streamlined adaptation of “Ender’s Game” successful is its devotion to the awakening conscience of its main character, criticized by some as “the innocent killer.”
Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) gives young Battle School recruit Ender Wiggin as tough an exterior as a 10-year-old can have when he’s being bullied for being younger and smarter than his teenage classmates. Everything about his training — the adult officers barking orders, the uniforms that don’t quite fit, the forced isolation, the videogames that read your mind and report back to the adults — is absurd. Harrison Ford plays Colonel Graff, a leader so desperate to fend off another alien attack on Earth that he’s willing to treat kids and their not-yet-formed, game-oriented brains like lab rats.
Hood balances Ender’s ascension in the military — filled with conventional-but-exciting montages about beating the odds — with scenes that, although all too obvious, challenge the morality of his situation. As a sympathetic Major, Viola Davis has the unfair task of being the moral barometer pretty much every time she appears onscreen, but who better to fill that role than an actress who can make even the corniest dialogue feel natural?
The plot moves efficiently forward, the special effects and set design are convincing, and the training-fight sequences are filmed clearly and with precision — even if they aren’t filled with the pages and pages of detail Card lent them in the book. In short, “Ender’s Game” plays surprisingly well. With its faceless, insect-like enemy and militaristic bravado, it sometimes feels like “Starship Troopers” Lite, but then again the violent, darkly satiric approach taken in that subversive 1997 movie won’t be seen again in the likes of a big-studio franchise wannabe.
No, for a young-adult fantasy movie, “Ender’s Game” plays the material straight, and is surprisingly thought-provoking. When the movie asks its questions about leadership and questioning authority, it may seem like the strings are too visible, but that’s just to combat that natural youthful desire we have to win at whatever game we’re playing. Because Ender is trained to fight his own tendency towards empathy from the beginning, it’s a feeling its audience has to grapple with throughout the film as well.
Now playing at Liberty Hall, “Enough Said” is notable because it marks the first appearance of James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”) since his untimely death in June from a heart attack. Man, he was on a roll. 2012 was a banner year for the actor, as he appeared in a scene-stealing role in the underrated crime saga “Killing Them Softly,” lent great authority to a disillusioned 1960s father in the similarly underrated coming-of-age flick “Not Fade Away,” and had a brief appearance as CIA director Leon Panetta in the acclaimed “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“Enough Said” shows a different side of Gandolfini, who plays a charming middle-aged, newly single parent about to lose his kid to college. He’s opposite masseuse and divorcée Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who also has a child going off to college. The two meet and immediately hit it off, but she discovers he's the hated ex she hears about all the time from her new friend (Catherine Keener). The film’s writer/director Nicole Holofcener has a history of mature, relationship-based romantic comedies under her belt, such as 1996’s “Walking and Talking” and 2010’s “Please Give,” and the film has been receiving some Oscar buzz for her screenplay and Gandolfini’s performance.
If you’re a fan of rock 'n' roll history, then you’ve probably heard of Muscle Shoals, Ala. The city — thanks to two legendary recording studios and a stable of unique behind-the-scenes talent — is synonymous with soulful authenticity. What you may not know is that the producer and band that backed up Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett on their breakthrough records, are a bunch of white guys from the sticks.
“Muscle Shoals,” which opened this weekend at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, is a pretty standard documentary full of talking-head interviews and archival photos. The movie puts the spotlight on the small, economically challenged river town that created the Muscle Shoals Sound and relates its iconic status as much to its environment as its talent. “Muscle Shoals” has a fascinating story to tell, though, and it does a great job unifying all the different threads of its story. While it may feel like a history lesson at times — especially to the uninitiated listener — "Muscle Shoals" is probably the best-sounding history lesson ever.