Monday, November 11, 2013

Ender's Game

Since its release in 1985, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game has amassed a sizable fan base, spawned several sequels, and come to be widely regarded as one of the great science fiction novels (if not the greatest) of the last 30 years.  Scott Card once declared the book “unfilmable,” but writer/director Gavin Hood has risen to the challenge, delivering a satisfying film that falls short of the intelligence and complexity of the source material but that stands on its own and gets the big stuff right.

Years after fighting a war with an alien race, humanity prepares for what it sees as the inevitable next confrontation.  An international military alliance establishes Battle School, an academy designed to produce tactical strategists by subjecting brilliant children to rigorous training.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a gifted 12 year old boy, enlists in Battle School at the urging of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford).  As Ender rises within the ranks via a series of war games and simulations, he learns more about his enemy and himself.

The Battle Room makes for some of the book’s most memorable scenes, and the film doesn’t disappoint.  This immense, zero-gravity training ground looks gorgeous onscreen, and the war games the students play come off as simple and complex at once.  Within the vast, glass-enclosed sphere, teams of students attempt to cross to their opponents’ gate while avoiding being shot by weapons that immobilize them.  It’s in these sequences that the film feels most alive, so much so that I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more minutes there.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film is the overall timespan; in the novel, Ender enrolls in Battle School at age six, so by age 12, he’s been training for half his life.  On screen, those six years are condensed into one; the change makes sense (switching actors would be jarring, after all), though it muddies a few plot points, especially Ender’s relationships with his sister and brother.  The scenes on Earth with Ender’s family ring hollow, and without proper explanation and character building, Ender’s relationship with his sister never resonates the way it should.

Lead performances are strong with a mix from the sides.  Asa Butterfield’s performance effectively suggests the combination of insecurity and superiority inherent in a young genius.  Harrison Ford and Viola Davis lend credibility as high-ranking military officers, and Ben Kingsley (the disclosure of whose character name would constitute a spoiler) brings some needed dramatic weight to the film’s third act.  Haliee Steinfeld, who was so memorable as Mattie in True Grit (2010), does well with what she’s given as Petra, one of Ender’s best friends in the school.  Unfortunately, some side characters come off more like caricatures than real people, undermining the seriousness of the setting.

The story addresses the moral complexities of war and of placing belief systems on children, with the finale being especially thought-provoking.  Ender’s Game achieves momentary greatness when firing on all cylinders, but little cracks in the presentation (occasional weaknesses in dialogue, acting, or visuals that look more like polished effects than gritty, wartime realities) prevent the film from meeting its full potential.  A few tweaks could have improved it, but Ender’s Game retains the crucial components that made the book a phenomenon.  I hope it turns viewers toward the source material, as anyone intrigued by the questions raised onscreen would find even more to love on paper.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material

Ender’s Game contains some violence, though not as much as the book. You don’t see much blood, but as Ender faces bullying from his classmates, he fights back pretty viciously to defend himself.  Even though the hero gets in some fights (he has adopted a military mindset, after all), retaliatory and preemptive violence is not necessarily celebrated.  It’s a morally complex story.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Muslims Are Coming

In the years since September 11, 2001, Muslims have become the most feared minority in America.  It’s not unusual to hear politicians or commentators voice broad concerns about Muslims, using now-commonplace words rarely heard in the Clinton years, such as jihad, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Sharia Law.  There’s an abundance of American misinformation about Islam, and while countering that ignorance with humor might not be the first strategy you’d expect (especially given Islam’s reputation as a religion that takes itself too seriously), it makes sense.  Getting to know people has always been the best way to break misconceptions, and nothing brings people together like laughter.

The Muslims Are Coming follows a nationwide tour by a group of Muslim-American comedians led by Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah.  Hoping to combat Islamophobia through humor, these comedians visit some of the most conservative areas in the country, from rural Alabama to Salt Lake City.  Their stand-up routines elicit plenty of laughs, but the film’s real gems are the street interviews conducted before or after the stand-up performances.  The comedians visit with patrons at a gun show.  They man a street-side booth titled, “Ask a Muslim,” where people can ask them anything.  In Salt Lake City, they offer free hugs beneath a “Hug a Muslim” sign.  These social experiments yield interesting results.

In some cases, the comedians are met with open hostility, but those are the exceptions.  Some people need to feel things out first; one woman asks, “What did you think of 9/11?” prompting a later reflection by Negin Farsad: “How could there be more than one answer to that question?”  For the most part, people are friendly.  The Muslims encounter more uncertainty than hate, and as they leave each city, you see more than the minds of the townspeople changing; you see the Muslim comedians’ perception of America changing as well.

The stand-up routines and side interviews highlight Muslim diversity.  Some Muslims enjoy poking fun at themselves and some don’t.  Some devoutly practice more conservative forms of Islam, while others stand on the agnostic fringes.  Islam has that diversity in common with every major religion, but the many faces of Islam pose a challenge to those who would foster understanding, especially when mainstream media so frequently focus on the faith’s most extreme practitioners.  The Muslims Are Coming opens with a hilarious montage of fear mongering clips from Fox News and CNN, but it’s no wonder watching it why so many Americans are confused or afraid.

Negin Farsad’s unique position as a female Muslim comedian carries its own difficulties; a poignant scene comes when a group of Muslim women walk out during one of Farsad’s sexually explicit routines.  “I wish I had more support from certain corners of the Muslim community, but I just don’t.”  The Muslims Are Coming mixes thought-provoking insight with some hilarious moments, and interviews with journalists and comedians such as Jon Stewart, David Cross, Rachel Maddow, and Soledad O’Brien further explore how current perceptions of Islam developed.  Ultimately heartwarming, The Muslims Are Coming celebrates American diversity and tolerance, exposing encouraging sides of both America and Islam that viewers may not have seen before.  And it’s also really funny.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Unrated

The Muslims Are Coming features frequent profanity of all sorts, including sexually-explicit jokes and occasional examples of hate speech.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Jurassic Park

I not only remember seeing Jurassic Park in the theater at age nine, I remember seeing the first teaser trailer.  It didn’t show a single dinosaur - just a fossilized mosquito and a tantalizing promise: “For the first time, man and dinosaur shared the Earth.  It happened at a place called Jurassic Park.  This summer, director Steven Spielberg will take you there.”  The film hit cinemas in June, though my parents didn’t agree to take me to see it (for well-founded fears that it would be too scary) until the end of the summer. (Side note: Spielberg released Schindler’s List that November... not a bad year for him.)

When I finally did go, I was entranced.  Jurassic Park earned a place in special effects history for blowing the computer-generated doors wide open, but impressive visuals aren’t the film’s only achievement, nor are they its greatest.  Adapted from Michael Crichton’s spellbinding novel, Jurassic Park tapped into wonderment, the awe that swells up as you stand before a towering skeleton in a museum and dream.  Many talented filmmakers left fingerprints on the project, but Spielberg’s touch made it a masterpiece.  

Entrepreneur John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) invites dinosaur experts Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern), along with renowned mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), to visit and hopefully endorse his latest business venture: Jurassic Park.  Constructed on an island off the coast of Costa Rica, Jurassic Park features living dinosaurs cloned from preserved DNA strands.  After a power failure allows the dinosaurs to escape their paddocks, what began as a wondrous vacation becomes a desperate fight for survival.

Until it was dethroned by Titanic in 1997, Jurassic Park was the highest grossing film of all time, and it set the stage for the effects-heavy blockbusters that would rule the 90s, though few were as memorable or as well-executed.  Jurassic Park began production with stop-motion effects; the technology for computer generating the dinosaurs was developed in house during production.  Younger moviegoers who have grown up with CGI might have a hard time grasping the magnitude of the achievement; audiences had never seen anything like it before. Some filmmakers became overly dependent on computer effects in later years (an unfortunate trend that continues to this day), but revisiting Jurassic Park, it’s refreshing to see the blend of groundbreaking and traditional effects used to bring dinosaurs to life.

Twenty years later, Jurassic Park’s CGI holds up remarkably well, partly because Spielberg and his effects team didn’t lean on it too heavily.  Take the spectacular T-Rex attack in the rain; what you see is a mix of computer effects and large-scale animatronics.  When Grant leans against the sick triceratops, you can sense the creature’s physical presence.  Dinosaurs’ pupils dilate and nostrils flare; close-ups on the practical effects help sell the digital ones.  The effects team pushed the limits of the new technology but had an admirable understanding of how to use it sparingly and effectively.

For its 20th anniversary re-release, Jurassic Park has been given the 3D treatment, a format I’m not a fan of, especially for a film shot in 2D and then converted to 3D during post production.  That said, Jurassic Park features the best post-conversion I’ve seen, with impressive depth and tasteful, gimmick-free implementation.  I can’t say the 3D added much to the viewing experience, but it didn’t detract as I feared it might.

Few Michael Crichton novels have translated well to the screen, partly because the science and factual details that pull readers into his stories rarely end up in the film script.  Jurassic Park spends just a few minutes addressing cloning and chaos theory, but those exchanges go a long way in selling the concept as semi-believable.  The movie begins with a frightening attack on a construction worker but then relaxes into scientific intrigue and character development before jumping back into action.  Few thrillers have Jurassic Park’s perfect pacing and emotional range.

Memorable performances, expert direction, an iconic score from John Williams, and some of the best visual effects on record have helped Jurassic Park age gracefully over the last twenty years.  Watching it again in a theater, I loved hearing children gasp as water rippled in the T-Rex’s muddy footprint and again as velociraptors hunted Lex and Tim in the kitchen (I couldn’t help but wonder if parents of younger children in the audience had the same concerns mid-movie as parents had in 1993).  Jurassic Park still has claws, but more importantly, it still has magic.  When the music swelled as Hammond welcomed his guests to Jurassic Park, I got chills all over again.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense science fiction terror

Jurassic Park received backlash from parents in 1993 because of how heavily it was marketed to children.  Young kiddos who walked in with their Jurassic Park happy meal toys walked out wide-eyed and traumatized.  Nothing about the film has changed for this re-release, so you could preview it at home before taking your kids.  If you don’t have time to re-watch it or just need a recap: a T-Rex picks a man up in his mouth and shakes him like a rag doll.  At one point, you see a bloody severed arm.  More concerning than the sparse onscreen violence, the dinosaurs themselves are often sharp-toothed and scary, with Spielberg consistently ratcheting up the suspense.  Kids will react differently based on what they’ve seen and what they’re ready for; I loved Jurassic Park at age nine, but I was well prepared, having read the junior novel until the pages fell out.

Where Have I Been?

For those who have regularly checked in over the last couple of years, you may have noticed me writing less and less. If you’ve checked in over the last five months, you may have noticed me not writing at all. So where have I been?

As it turns out, I’ve been writing a great deal, though the bulk of my attention has shifted to fiction. I’m putting more energy into my short stories and my novel (which I’m currently shopping around) than my reviews, so the content of this site has suffered. I apologize if you checked back during awards season, when new reviews should have been popping up constantly, to see that same “Skyfall” review from November. It was a fine film, and while I was pleased with my review, it was hardly good enough to hold down the fort for five months.

That said, I’m excited to announce that some big changes are on the horizon. will soon receive a makeover to more fully reflect what I’m up to with my writing. A more comprehensive author page with biographical information and updates on my fiction writing are in the works, though my movie reviews will still be a feature. I’m planning to launch the new site later this year.

I am also beginning a podcast with my good friend Luke Harris called, “Center Seat with Luke and Dee.” We’ll discuss movies, TV shows, video games, comics, and other aspects of pop culture that interest us, so stay tuned for more updates about “Center Seat.”

Most of all, thanks for reading; your support means the world to me.