Ender’s Game (2013)

2015 #146
Gavin Hood | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Adapted from the classic young adult sci-fi novel by Orson Scott “bigoted idiot” Card, Ender’s Game is the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who displays uncommon aptitude in a military programme to train children to fight against an alien race that attacked Earth decades earlier. Sent to a training centre in space, Ender must battle his fellow candidates to prove their worth to their hardened commander, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), ready for the real battle to come.

Ender’s Game endured a pretty mixed reception a couple of years ago (not helped by the media exposure given to Card’s less-than-savoury personal views), and it’s quite a mixed film: for every positive, a negative follows close behind. It’s not helped by its first act, where the film seems to struggle with its own setup. After that, however, it’s a fairly well structured story, in which you can actually believe Ender is learning to be a better leader. Normally when a movie features “an excellent military strategist” we’re told that and never shown it, but here we see how Ender’s skills as a strategist develop and are exhibited.

The rest of writer-director Gavin Hood’s screenplay is, again, a mixed bag. The dialogue is frequently clunky, particularly struggling with exposition — there are utterly dead scenes where characters just explain the plot to each other — but, while it is at no point strong, it’s often serviceable. There are strong themes, however, several of which have relevance to our modern world. Unfortunately, none feel fully developed or explored. It tips its hat to things like drone warfare, child soldiers, and understanding our enemy, but that’s all it does: acknowledge those parallels exist, then refuse to explore them. Conversely, the music is too heavy-handed, taking on the burden of providing emotion that’s lacking from the screenplay.

Most of the cast are very good. Asa Butterfield well conveys a moderately complex character, though I can believe others’ comments that Ender is more fully developed in the book. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin offer able support; Harrison Ford proves he’s still awesome; Ben Kingsley battles what turns out to be a New Zealand accent (I’d assumed it was South African) in a cameo-sized turn; Viola Davis is ludicrously underused — she does basically nothing, then walks into Ford’s office and essentially declares, “I am no longer needed by the plot, I quit.”

At least there are solid action/sci-fi thrills on offer. The inter-student practice fights in the Danger Room (or whatever it was called) are really good — suitably exciting and fun, with impressive effects work. There are many good visuals in the film, but then strong CGI is par for the course these days. That’s why the space station stuff is best: the alien race and their planet are well-realised but also feel like nothing new; and the space station’s corridors, offices, and bunk room sets are well done, though as derived from familiar real-life and/or near-future styles as much as many other SF movies; but the station’s giant glass-walled zero-G training arena is stunning.

Sadly, after all that training fun, once the cadets jet off to the other side of the galaxy for a rushed third act, interest evaporates speedily. It even has to work hard to sell its own twist as a twist! (Spoilers follow in this paragraph.) In a simulation for a war, Ender does what he’d do to win that war. Then he’s told it wasn’t a simulation, it was the actual war… and he’s all cross. I mean, okay, the fella kinda has a point when he gets angry afterwards: they’ve lied to him, and maybe he would’ve behaved differently if he’d known. But the point of the training was to teach them what they needed to do to win, and it taught them that, and he did it. Maybe this twist works in the book, but in the film it felt somehow unearned.

Ender’s Game is not all it could be, but as a straightforward young-adult sci-fi action-adventure, I really rather enjoyed the majority of it.

4 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 (2007)

2015 #149a
Jeremy Sutheim | 7 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

After watching Inherent Vice back in August, I was inspired to re-read the only Thomas Pynchon novel I’d ever read, which I’d liked very much and been meaning to take another run at for years. That was, as you might guess, The Crying of Lot 49, a ’60s tale of possible conspiracy and definite paranoia. Reading about it afterwards, I came upon thomaspynchon.com — not an official site, despite the straightforward name — which linked to their series of Wikis on each of his novels; and right at the top of the Crying of Lot 49 one was a subsection entitled “And now… The Movie…”, complete with a YouTube link. So I watched that and now I’m reviewing it because, you know, that’s what I do.

Although details are fairly scarce on the film’s YouTube page, it appears to be a student short, possibly only made for some school project. It adapts the entire novel in just seven minutes, solely through meaningful images and music — there are no actors, no dialogue, no voiceover. A solid knowledge of the book is essential to understand what’s going on and why certain imagery has been chosen; without it, I think the film would come across as utterly meaningless. Even with it, you find yourself grasping back to memories of the novel to work out what you’re being shown and why.

Some images are lifted out of the text wholesale, like representing an approaching city as a circuitboard. In the novel, it’s a memorable visual simile; on screen, its effectiveness is bluntly underlined (you can, literally, see what Pynchon means), though in the context of the film it’s an odd item to just pop up. Most of the rest of the film is more literal, picking out locations and things to show that will (or may) trigger a memory of the appropriate part of the book. That’s where a viewer will get the narrative from — as a film in its own right, it’s unfollowable. As someone in the comments accurately describes it, “This feels like a version of [the novel] done by Microsoft’s Summarize Text feature. It’s all basically there but coherence and cohesion have been thrown out the Windows.”

It’s probably not fair to judge The Crying of Lot 49 by normal moviemaking standards. As a high school project to summarise a novel in a few minutes of video (which it may or may not be), it’s probably alright. Otherwise, though, it’s not worth the seven minutes; not even for die-hard fans of the author and/or novel. It is, you might say, a W.A.S.T.E. of time. #injoke

1 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 can be watched on YouTube.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

2015 #127
Francis Lawrence | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you’re not au fait with the first two Hunger Games movies, there’s nothing for you here. Why would you want to join a story halfway through anyway?

Even for those of us who are, Mockingjay Part 1 — the first half of a two-part finale that, for my money, plays more like its own standalone movie than most first halves of two-part finales manage (I’m thinking of Deathly Hallows 1 or The Matrix Reloaded here) — throws us in at the deep end, starting a little while after the end of the last film and challenging us to keep up. It’s a little frustrating at times — if you’ve not watched the previous movies into the ground, there are points where you wonder if you’ve forgotten something or just not been told it yet — but ultimately helps make for an engrossing, mature movie.

Naturally I mean “mature” in the sense of “grown up”, not in the oft-misused sense of “for adults only, wink wink”. This is a thoughtful film, one which has more time for examining issues of politicking than for bang-bang-a-boom fight scenes. Indeed, if you’ve come looking for an action movie — as, it seems, most critics did — then you’ll definitely be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a film to continue the series’ rich vein of sci-fi political allegory, well, you’re in luck. This edition: propaganda.

In the previous films, heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inadvertently inspired a rebellion against the ruling Capitol, which has been bubbling away without her knowledge. Now, having been targeted by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), she’s been transported to the underground locales of District 13, where they want to put her in films to continue spreading dissension among the other districts. At the same time, the Capitol are putting Katniss’ captured lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the air, arguing for peace and maintaining the status quo. It’s a war of hearts and minds, essentially, as both sides attempt to rally ordinary people to their cause through the power of the media. It’s a tale that’s as timely as ever, surely.

One of my favourite elements here is the distrust that both sides engender. The rebels Katniss has found herself with are certainly the good guys, battling to overthrow an abusively oppressive regime, but they aren’t whiter-than-white — they won’t always do everything our hero would like; she’s not always sure she can trust them. There’s no doubt about which side is the right one to be on, but it’s at least a little more complex than the norm.

Katniss herself remains a refreshingly un-self-assured heroine. She doesn’t always know or do what’s right, she isn’t always sure of her purpose or her goals, or even her own feelings. That’s so much more human than so many movie heroes, no doubt in part thanks to having an Oscar-able actress to carry the role. True, we’ve seen these facets before from her in both of the previous films, but hurrah to author Suzanne Collins and to the filmmakers for not taking the simple route of having her transform into something she didn’t start as. There’s still a whole outstanding film to bring about such a change, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they follow this through to the end.

The fact there will be another film is an undoubted point of contention. The Hunger Games is the latest to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and split the final book of a series in two when filmed. Indeed, since Twilight latched onto that bandwagon it’s become de rigueur, with the final-book-split usually announced as soon as the first film in a wannabe-series is a box office hit — see the Divergent series, for example (or The Maze Runner for one that supposedly won’t succumb to this). Despite the complaints from many other critics and viewers, I must say that (as someone who hasn’t read the book) it didn’t feel overly like the first half of something longer to me. Of course there’s a cliffhanger and stuff, but there was at the end of the last film as well. This is no worse than that. If anything, I felt Mockingjay Part 1 built to its ending more successfully — I was quite surprised when Catching Fire stopped, whereas here the ending felt like a natural stopping point. In fact, given the point some of the storylines reach, it’s difficult to imagine them feeling anything other than rushed if they’d been executed in half the time. Maybe the film is a little drawn out in places and some storylines could’ve been condensed (how many propaganda films do we need to see Katniss make, really?), but that’s a niggle about perhaps wanting a minor trim, not a complaint decrying the need for full-blown editorial intervention.

Whether or not this Part 1 stands alone will be cemented by the next film, I feel. If the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead isn’t continued in Part 2 then, well, that’s the part of the story that this film is about. It doesn’t feel like it needs to be continued next time — that particular propaganda angle has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow; I hope it feels like Part 4 of 4, in the way this currently feels like Part 3 of 4, and doesn’t play as Part 3B of 3 and retroactively transform this into Part 3A.

If you like a lot of Hunger Games action from your Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you more enjoy the political satire side of the series, it may be your favourite instalment so far (and you wouldn’t be alone in that view). For me, Catching Fire is the best of the three because it crystallises both of those constituent elements; and if the first film was purely the action side (with a bit of the politics), then here we find its mirror image: purely politics (with a bit of action). Either way, perhaps the ultimate fate of all these films rests on how well the next, final part can bring all their action, themes, and plots to fruition.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is available on Netflix UK from today.

Great Expectations (1946)

2007 #98
David Lean | 113 mins | DVD | PG

Great ExpectationsClassic adaptation of the acclaimed novel. While my experience of Dickens is woefully limited to screen adaptations, this tale is one of my lesser favourites; the first act and elements of the climax are wonderfully Gothic (and here beautifully directed to that effect), but it seems to lack the depth or importance of works such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol.*

Though, aside from the dully straightforward middle, there’s little to dislike about the adaptation. John Mills is too old to convince as a 20-year-old Pip, but his performance is good and he’s ably supported. However, the main highlights are undoubtedly all in Lean’s brilliant direction.

4 out of 5

* I don’t remove anything when I repost my old reviews, but I must add that I now find this comment to be suitably embarrassing. ^

Trainspotting (1996)

2007 #29
Danny Boyle | 90 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Trainspotting

Choose great direction.
Choose iconic images.
Choose a great soundtrack.
Choose a brilliant cast.
Choose a career-making performance from Ewan McGregor.
Choose a witty script.
Choose realism.
Choose drugs.
Choose sex.
Choose a condom, for the first time on screen.
Choose swearing.
Choose violence.
Choose drink.
Choose Scotland.
Choose Trainspotting.

5 out of 5

Choose Film4 tonight, Thursday 2nd April 2015, at 10:55pm.