REVIEW: “Ender’s Game”

Enders game Poster

It would be easy to lump “Ender’s Game” in with the current trend of science-fiction films centered around young people. These movies seem to be popular now and modern Hollywood has shown it will milk popular trends dry. But while “Ender’s Game” has several elements that puts it in this category, it also does somethings that sets it apart. It is a movie with a thinly-veiled message, but it’s also a fun bit of science fiction that doesn’t always feel original but still works as a whole.

Asa Butterfield, who I loved as the wide-eyed title character in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, plays a young prodigy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. After months of observation, he is sent to an advanced battle school by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). The school is the first step in preparing the kids for war with an alien species known as the Formics. 50 years earlier the Formics attacked Earth but were finally repelled by the heroic and sacrificial acts of a now iconic soldier named Mazer Rackham. The military believes another alien attack is inevitable so they plan to strike before the aliens do.


The film follows Ender and a number of other kids through various stages of Battle School. You see apparently these video game savvy youth have acquired a better skill set for the video game-like combat of the future. As Ender advances he encounters an assortment of new kids, some of which are characters we’ve seen in movies a hundred times before. For example, there is an adolescent “Top Gun” rivalry that was just too corny to buy into. All of this is going on under the watchful eye of the cold, businesslike Colonel Graff and his counterpoint Major Anderson (Viola Davis) who is more interested in the children’s emotional well-being.

The story builds and builds towards the seemingly inevitable war to come. Ender develops a few close relationships with fellow cadets including an outgoing girl named Petra. She’s played by Hailee Steinfeld, one of my favorite young actresses in Hollywood. Ben Kingsley also pops up in the second half of the film with an interesting role and a face full of tattoos. The performances from all who I’ve mentioned are solid. I’m really impressed with Butterfield and Steinfeld, both of whom know how to handle themselves in front of the camera. Some of the other young actors, not so much.


While I liked the story of “Ender’s Game” as a whole it does run into a wall about two-thirds of the way through. It begins to feel as if it is repeating itself (with slight advancements of the plot) at certain junctures. I eventually found myself ready to move past Ender’s training and get to the big finale. It certainly does come with some big special effects and a few rather disorienting twists that took a minute or two to soak in. Some interesting ramifications and personal conflicts follow which I thought was a neat way to end the story.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “end the story” because “Ender’s Game” is clearly set up with a franchise in mind. The final scene leaves no doubt about that. I would check out another chapter of this story although I’m not sure how compelling the new direction might be. As for this first installment, it is a fairly satisfying bit of science fiction that walks the tricky line of trying to appeal to youth and adults alike. For the most part it succeeds. It’s not a movie I would rush to see again, but it is a film I can appreciate.


REVIEW: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”


Obviously there have been several powerful films that have dealt directly with the Holocaust. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a unique look at this murderous and genocidal scar on world history. It’s based on John Boyne’s 2006 novel of the same name and looks at the subject through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy. It’s a tender but crushing tale of the loss of innocence as we watch this young boy discover the truth about the world around him. Some critics have said it exploits or trivializes the Holocaust with others going as far as to call it offensive. I found it to be a careful yet devastating drama that ultimately succeeds in the end.

Asa Butterfield, better known for his more recent starring role in “Hugo”, plays Bruno. His father Ralf (David Thewlis) is a Nazi SS officer who gets a new assignment requiring him to move with his family from Berlin to the countryside. Bruno’s mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) supports her husband’s decision. But Bruno finds himself alone and missing his friends back in Berlin. His loneliness and boredom spurs his curiosity and he begins noticing several interesting things about his new location. One is a mysterious “farm” in the distance that he sees from his bedroom window but is forbidden to visit or ask about. He’s also intrigued by a house servant who he notices is wearing what looks like striped pajamas. Of course we know the servant is Jewish and a captive, but through young Bruno’s eyes things are more confusing.


One of the most engaging things about the movie is that writer and director Mark Herman is able to keep us inside of Bruno’s head even though we know exactly what’s going on outside of his knowledge. I found the film to be very effective at conveying the feeling of discovery as Bruno learns more. Perhaps his biggest lessons come not from his twice-a-week tutor who bombards him with all sorts of Nazi propaganda and revisionist history, but from a young Jewish boy. Bruno encounters the boy after sneaking away from his house and stumbling across the “farm”. Of course it’s actually a Nazi execution camp and the boy, named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), sits on the other side of an electrified fence. The two quickly develop a friendship. It is Shmuel who begins to shed light on what this “farm” really is and causes Bruno to question both his father and his cause.

The movie never loses sight of the fact that Bruno is only 8-years-old. He struggles with what he’s seeing and his attempts to reconcile certain things with his desire to see his father as a good man is heartbreaking. Even when his mother finds out why they’ve moved to the country and furiously confronts Ralf, we still witness these things through Bruno’s child-like reasoning. But there is an emotional balance. While we spend most of our time with Bruno, we know of the atrocities that are taking place almost entirely off-screen. Yet these atrocities are relayed to us very well in often subtle ways.


The performances throughout the film are fantastic. Farmiga is one Hollywood’s better actresses and she shows that here. I also appreciated Thewlis’ portrayal of a man who often times puts his role of father in complete subjection to his duties as a Nazi soldier. But it’s young Butterfield who gets the vast majority of the screen time and he is quite good. He draws a lot of sympathy and emotion  and it’s always great to see a young actor able to pull that off. I also enjoyed his scenes with young Scanlon. While Butterfield is better in their scenes, they both handle the material nicely.

I can see where “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” may put off some people. It’s hard to watch especially as everything comes to a head at the end of the film. In fact, it’s a movie I’m in no rush to see again. That isn’t due to any major shortcomings with the picture. It’s due to the film’s intense emotional punch that stuck with me for several days. I was incredibly moved and while there are some legitimate questions that could be asked about the story, the movie’s main point resonated with me. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” asks several powerful questions about war, family, and morality. It also gives us a glimpse into a part of our world’s history that is still hard to look at but should be reckoned with.



REVIEW – “Hugo”

Martin Scorsese has proven himself to be a fantastic filmmaker, creating some of the industries most memorable films. The Oscar winning director is responsible for such movies as “Taxi Driver”, “Gangs of New York”, “The Departed”, and most recently “Shutter Island”. But out of all the movies on Scorsese’s resume, none are quite like “Hugo”. It’s his first foray into the more family friendly genre and his first film shot in 3D. But’s it’s also a stellar example of what a master craftsman can do with a great story, large budget, and the latest technology.  Based on the Brian Selznick’s novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, “Hugo” is a movie that resonates on nearly every emotional level while also offering one of the most visually stunning experiences you’ll have in a theater. It’s a near masterpiece.

“Hugo” is the story of a young orphan living within the walls of a Paris train station. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) spends time swiping parts from around the train station in order to fix a broken automaton left behind by his deceased father. Desperate and lonely, Hugo hopes that hidden inside of the automaton is a message from his father. He is befriended by an adventurous young girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) but runs afoul of her godfather Georges (Ben Kingsley). We also spend time with several wonderful characters from around the train station. There’s the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a florist (Emily Mortimer), a book store owner (Christopher Lee), and more. These characters not only give the station life and vibrancy, but each have there own little role to play in Hugo’s story.

While the story is beautifully crafted, it’s the performances that drive it. Butterfield is very convincing as Hugo and he really amazed me with his emotional range. Even more impressive was Moretz. She’s energetic, charming, and lights up the screen. Kingsley gives another brilliant performance that deserves serious Oscar consideration and Cohen offers plenty of laughs while also showing a sad, pitiful side to his character. There is not one bad performance in the picture and Scorsese manages his actors with precision. These performances are perfect compliments to his directing style.

While this isn’t the sort of material you would usually relate to Scorsese, he handles it with the exact same care and detail as any of his other pictures. Even with it’s big imagination and sometimes fantasy feel, this is a story that seems deeply personal to the director and he pours out affection on every scene. His vision of 1930s Paris grabbed me from it first gorgeous sprawling shot and through every intricate detail found in the architecture, wardrobes, dialogue, and mannerisms. Scorsese’s use of the camera and his ability to set up shots is impeccable and the way he use’s 3D gives me hope for the technology. It’s worth noting that this is a movie you should see in 3D. With so many cheap conversions and cash grabs out there, Scorsese gives us the most visually engaging use of 3D since Avatar. It’s at times subtle and other time jaw-dropping but always pleasing to the eye and immersive.

“Hugo” is a film that should strike a chord with any true movie lover. Not only is it expert storytelling and a visual master work, but it’s a tip of the hat to everything that makes movies such a great art form. Scorsese takes us back to the early days of silent cinema and shows the power and influence of film. There’s no way you can watch the second half of this movie and not have a stronger appreciation for motion pictures and the way it’s incorporated into Hugo’s story is practically flawless.

“Hugo” is a family friendly drama and a celebration of cinema all wrapped into one. It’s a movie for both adults and children yet it never caters specifically to either. It’s an intelligent and earnest picture that earns our tears at the end through it’s genuine sincerity and tenderness. It’s a visual marvel with the same signature camera work we’ve seen throughout Scorsese’s career and a dazzling use of 3D that gives the technology the shot in the arm it desperately needs. “Hugo” left me with one of the most satisfying experiences I have had in the theater. This may be Scorsese’s first dive into this new sandbox, but the result is one of the best films of 2011.