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Column Fri Nov 01 2013

Ender's Game, Last Vegas, About Time, Blue is the Warmest Color, Diana, Kill Your Darlings, Man of Tai Chi & Broadway Idiot


Ender's Game

Why do such a huge percentage of all invading alien races have to be a bug or crustacean species? Other than that little pet peeve of mine, I'm on board with this bit of military-heavy science fiction that covers a paranoid period in Earth's future where child soldiers are being trained and prepped to be the next wave of defense against a possible second massive attack from an alien race known as the Formics, who, shockingly enough, look like bugs. Many years earlier, the Formics attacked and nearly wiped out Earth were it not for the inventive battle tactics of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), considered by all to be a sainted hero of the planet.

Based on the first of many novels in the Enderverse series by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game is the story of Ender Wiggin (Hugo's Asa Butterfield), a child from a family of siblings who tried and failed to make it to Battle School (let alone Command School, where the true leaders land). His brother was kicked out for being too violent; his sister (Abigail Breslin) was eliminated because she was too emotional (girls, right?), but she still supports Ender in his quest for greatness and acts as something of a spirit guide as he contemplates battle strategy and how to play well with others. Part of the reason Ender is so successful in his education and training is that he's a contemplative lad who evaluates each situation with a cool head and a killer's heart, a fact that he sometimes finds troubling.

Watching him carefully as he makes his way through various boot-camp-style International Military schools are Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). It doesn't take long for Ender to rise through the ranks and become the natural choice to lead the forces against the Formics, who Col. Graff is convinced are readying for a second-wave assault. Sizable portions of Ender's Game involve watching Ender in various training scenarios, as groups of students are pitted against each other in what appears to be the greatest zero-gravity, laser tag battlefield in history. But Ender is also challenged on a more personal level, to see how he handles bullies, rejection, and being set apart as a leader, never really being able to fraternize with his fellow students (although he does manage to keep a few friends, in particular Petra, played by True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld).

In the beginning of the film (adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, who made X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition and Tsotsi), I wasn't certain I was enjoying Butterfield's performance, a combination of fear and ego. But as the film goes on, we begin to realize that his responses are measured and calculated and exactly how someone whose brain is working at a million miles per hour would behave. You can see the deduction going on behind his eyes, and when he does finally act during countless battle simulation exercises, it's swift and decisive.

What I wasn't expecting — but was happy to see — was that Ender's Game turns into an unexpectedly smart antiwar film, when Graff makes it clear what his intentions are with his new young leader. Ford has a speech at the end of the film that brings out such a solid combination of anger and desperation that it reminds us that he is so much better an actor than some of his more scowling-oriented work of late would have us believe. This is the best work Ford has done in years, and it has nothing to do with him being back in an outer space environment. Graff is a man and military leader who is afraid for Earth's survival, and he's not above certain immoral acts to ensure its safety. The thing that pleasantly surprised me most about Ender's Game is that it's a morality tale in the guise of a science-fiction story.

The visuals here are also fairly remarkable — rather than go for the grungy look so many space-related action films adapt, Ender's Game takes place in a clean, crisp environment that looks exactly how you'd expect a spit-and-polish military academy to look. And the special effects, especially the scenes of swarming aliens attacking remote-controlled (by students) drone ships, is pretty remarkable stuff.

Ender's Game is a fairly angst-ridden affair, between Ender contemplating his role as leader and those in command worrying about the fate of the human race. But it's a welcome change from the kids-in-space works of the past filled with wide-eyed children yelling "Yippee!" and drinking Tang out of a juice box. By the time Ender meets his (and everybody's) hero, Mazer Rackham, the film has became a very mature story about some very serious subjects that have real resonance in today's world. There's no preaching here, but that almost makes the film's underlying messages speak louder. I hope the folks who made this film get a chance to continue to explore this universe and these issues, without losing site on the social commentary that is a crucial part of so much great science fiction.

Last Vegas

I'm not going to lie to you: there are a lot of really dumb jokes at the expense of old people in Last Vegas, a film that throws together no fewer than five Oscar-winning actors and hopes they're smart enough to make something out of this Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love; The Guilt Trip) script that attempts to elicit laughter and tears in equal measure. Spoiler alert: it has better luck with the laughs.

Last Vegas is about four childhood friends from New York who have more or less kept in touch over the years. When the group's sole bachelor, Billy (Michael Douglas, looking George Hamilton tan) announces he's engaged to his 30-something girlfriend, he decides to pull the old gang back together for the first time in decades for a Vegas bachelor party to precede his Vegas wedding. Without much fuss, widower with a heart condition Archie (Morgan Freeman) and happily married Sam (Kevin Kline) are on board. But it takes some convincing to get Paddy (Robert De Niro) to come, partly because his wife has recently died and he's in mourning, and partly because he had a falling out with Billy over what, we don't know (but you'd be right if you guessed we eventually find out).

Needless to say, the boys all end up in Vegas and start doing the Vegas thing. Archie suddenly wins about $100,000 playing blackjack, so money is no limit, and they're given the VIP suite and a caretaker in the form of Lonnie (Romany Malco from The 40-Year-Old Virgin). The men end up at a dive lounge bar where the lovely singer, Diana (Mary Steenburgen, who still looks amazing in a tight dress), captures their ear and a couple of their hearts.

During the course of their Vegas weekend, they manage to get into a bit of harmless trouble, poke fun at each others' signs of getting older, make a young punk (Jerry Ferrara) think they are dangerous gangsters and turn him into their personal gopher. And by the end of their few days there, the whole town pretty much ends up in their hotel suite — just like in real life. Look, I'm not going to try to tell you that having these powerhouse actors makes Last Vegas a great movie; it isn't. But it does make it a better experience overall. I was especially tickled by Kline's asides and weird behavior, as the man whose wife (Joanna Gleason) is so cool, she gives him a "pass" to sleep with any other woman while he's away because she knows it's been a while for him. So you can pretty much guess how that scenario turns out.

De Niro probably has the most well-rounded character as a man with more complicated emotions about both his departed wife and this new woman who enters his life. Steenburgen is the heart and soul of the film, and she makes even the most intolerable moments slightly easier to handle. She refuses to see these men as old, and that makes them all feel a whole lot better about themselves and the chaos they are creating. Director Jon Turteltaub is an expert in making lightweight, crowd-pleasing films like the two National Treasure movies, Phenomenon and While You Were Sleeping (but not The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which made nobody feel good), and he does a decent job pulling out some enjoyable moments from this obvious script. But honestly, how much more can Hollywood drain out of the Vegas comedy? It's a dry well, folks, and it's time to fill it with concrete and let it rest in peace for at least 10 more years. Last Vegas might appeal to the older crowd or to folks who have never seen a comedy set in Vegas, ever. If you don't fall into either of these categories, you could be in for a long night out.

To read my exclusive interview with Last Vegas director Jon Turteltuab, go to Ain't It Cool News.

About Time

If the premise of the latest from writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) sounds like a gimmick, that's because it is. But it's a gimmick he doesn't beat into the ground, as he manages (as always) to draw out the heartbreaking and life-affirming feelings. Yes, the collective-cry master is back. Best known for his work as a writer of such grown-up romantic comedies as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the Bridget Jones films and War Horse (scratch that last one, but he did write the film version), Curtis is a man who isn't afraid to tackle emotions, particularly in his male charaters.

In About Time, there are actually two men fully in touch with their feelings: a son, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), and his father (Curtis mainstay Bill Nighy). And after Tim has had yet another lame year in his life and is reflecting upon it with his dad, Nighy reveals something about the men in their family, which is that they have the ability to go back in time. It has to be a specific moment in their life, so that you can change something you want to get right, and then you come back to the present and see if the results of the change are as you have intended. The time travel aspect of this film is a little shaky, but it's also not really the point.

This being a love story, Tim opts to use this ability to re-create his meeting with Mary (Rachel McAdams, who at this point should be a part of the Mt. Rushmore of romantic comedies), since the first few don't go exactly as planned. And once they've become a for-real couple, the film takes some interesting turns outside of the relationship, and Tim discovers the limits of his abilities. For example, if he goes back to a time before the birth of a child and someone changes the direction of one of the parent's lives, that child might never be born or it could be an entirely different child, forcing Tim to go back and set things back they way they originally happened. It sounds complicated, but the film makes it easy to understand.

And then there are certain unfortunate moments in life that have nothing to do with bad timing, such as illness. And soon Tim realizes that he's following in the footsteps of his father in more ways than one when it comes to using this gift to say hello to friends and family long gone. The other thing Tim can't change easily is a person's lack on interest in taking care of themselves. There are some scenes with his sweet but troubled sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) that are quite moving. But after a while, the greatest lesson Tim learns is that living in the present and then reliving the exact moments as they happened is the greatest way to appreciate life.

Son of the great actor Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall (best know as Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter films) has just enough quirk to make us like him and recognize his nice balance of nerdy and appealing. McAdams isn't breaking much new ground here, although Curtis has given her enough strange personality traits to keep her slightly unpredictable. With this being a film about a guy who can go back in time to fix his mistakes, it essentially undercuts any real drama that might arise out of any situation. That doesn't make About Time any less funny or charming, but it does make it a bit less interesting than some of Curtis' other work. Still, in a landscape that is presently free of any decent films about romance, it should inspire a fair amount of hand holding among couples.

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Let's get some of the basics out of the way. First, Blue Is the Warmest Color is rated NC-17; I have to be honest, I wasn't even 100 percent certain that rating excited anymore, but it does and it certainly applies to this sexually explicit work from director and co-writer Abdellatif Keichiche. Second, the film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, deservedly so. Third, the explicit scenes in the film mostly involve lesbian sex — presented in an almost clinical but still romantic manner that doesn't involve swelling violins (or any music at all in most cases) or mood lighting or soft focus; it's done to seem real and passionate — done and done. Finally, the film is three hours long; it didn't feel that long for me, but it certainly didn't feel 90 minutes long either. Plan accordingly, but do plan on seeing this deeply moving testament to love and all the beauty and pain that comes with it.

When you boil it down, Blue is a document of the entirety of a relationship, from the second the 15-year-old Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) sets eyes on Emma (Lea Seydoux), an art school student with dusky blue hair, crossing the street, to their last-ever meeting many years later. And in the spirit of taking us on the journey, the filmmaker doesn't rush his way through this story of young love; he wants us to feel like the audience is going through it with them — from the deeply sexy lovemaking to the fighting and growing apart as the relationship begins to fray.

The story is told more from Adele's point of view, and while both women grow and mature as their time together passes, Exarchopoulos' transformation is remarkable well played. When we meet her, she is just discovering sex for the first time (with a boy from her school), but simply crossing paths with Emma one time leads to her to fantasize about her almost immediately, and before long she's sneaking into the local lesbian bars in search of her blue-haired object of desire.

Emma displays a confidence about her sexuality that makes everyone desire her to varying degrees. But it's this high school girl whom she's fallen for, and before long they are in bed, essentially acting out Adele's fantasies note for note. The film doesn't tell you exactly how much time passes from scene to scene, but it becomes clear after a while that years are going by before our eyes, and before long Adele is studying to be a teacher, Emma is concentrating on her art and planning her first big shows, and the two are eventually living together.

There are many telling moments at each stage of their relationship. Emma goes from being the one in control to sharing the emotional weight as they grow emotionally closer to catch up to how physically in tune they've become. But when Adele gets her first teaching job, she begins to experience the company of people outside of their largely gay community. It's fascinating watching these two tremendous actors maneuver around each other, both in good times and in bad. They go from seeming synchronous in their thoughts and actions in the good times to dancing around and away from each other as their worlds drift further apart. Every look, touch and discussion is ripe with hidden meaning and sometimes a great deal of hurt.

The final portion of Blue is so devastating that it burns your eyes to watch. I want to keep the specifics spoiler free, but things fall apart so quickly that we almost don't have time to process the destruction. But the film doesn't end with their breakup; there are several encounters after the women stop being a couple that only seem to seal the fate of their knowing each other. There's a familiarity and honesty to these scenes, and if you let yourself think of the worst breakup of your life, it probably bares some resemblance (emotionally) to what Adele goes through in this film.

Blue Is the Warmest Color maybe draw you in with promises of beautiful women engaged in graphic sex, but it will draw you into its heart with gripping performances and the account of a 10-year relationship that proves that the things that bring us together and tear us apart are universal. The emotional rawness of this movie will probably have you dialing your therapist as soon as you leave the theater, but that's a good thing. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


It's weird that this film even exists. Covering only the last two years of her tumultuous life, Diana examines the Princess of Wales (Naomi Watts) relationship with Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), a Pakistani-born heart surgeon, with whom she was involved after her marriage to Prince Charles rapidly fell apart. But that period of her life (1995-97) also included some of her most inspiring work, working on behalf AIDS research and against the production of land mines. But the film seems intent on turning her love affair with Khan into something of a romantic comedy about the most famous woman in the world and her wacky dating adventures with an ultra-private doctor. The pitch almost writes itself.

Written by playwright Stephen Jeffreys (inspired by Kate Snell's book Diana: Her Last Love) and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, The Invasion), Diana spends a lot of time showing how the princess would sneak her new boyfriend in and out of her residence, or how she would come up with excuses to visit him at work, or how she would throw on wigs and dresses that Diana would never wear so they could go out in public on dates and not be recognized. If this is all true, it's rather incredible she got away with it for so long considering the sheer volume of photographers who were following her all the time.

What these amusing scenes don't reveal is much about Diana the person; even when we do get to watch them spend time together, their conversations rarely get deep enough for us to care about their relationship or its outcome. There are some moments of insight, but all those serve to do is make us wish there were more. She makes comments or jokes about her time as a member of the royal family or her husband's indiscretions, and you can sense the bitterness that hides behind the humor. But it's clear that Khan was the person in Diana's life who pushed her to use her celebrity and press attention to go out into the world and do some good.

I liked the sequences that showed how Diana had a closer relationship with the press than one might think. In one scene late in the film, she alerts a photographer to her location so he can take photos of her with another man so Khan will get jealous and call her. While I tend to believe she was capable of doing things like this, including it in a film that ends with her tragic death seems trite and insensitive. The bigger problem is Watts, who seems to be on a roll of really bad role choices of late. She's such an accomplished actor, but you can spot her putting on Diana's mannerisms, wearing them like too much makeup rather than incorporating them seamlessly into her performance. I did catch myself forgetting who I was looking at a few times, but that was more because of the costumes and hairstyles than the acting.

Were she still alive, I have no doubt Diana would have done a great deal of admirable things with her popularity, and, as Diana shows us, she would have made some mistakes along the way because she tended to act on her own at times, without always considering the consequences. (Remember that BBC interview?) But something is horribly off with this movie about a woman coming into her own. It feels condescending, as if she were a ditzy blonde looking for man to show her the way. I don't buy that for a second. And in this attempt to humanize the person behind the headlines, Diana instead becomes little more than bringing those headlines to life and cheapening her legacy.

Kill Your Darlings

Filled with great performances and characters whose pretensions were matched only by their as-yet-untapped talent, Kill Your Darlings gives us a year in the early lives of what would become the founders of the Beat Generation in this largely true story that focuses on Allen Ginsberg (played quite convincingly by Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe) as he's on the verge of leaving for Columbia University in 1944.

Determined to be an upstanding student, Allen is quickly led astray by the rebellious nature and good looks of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who seems capable of great thought but not of the great writing his circle of friends produces. The others in their circle include names you might know: Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S. Burroughs (the uncanny Ben Foster). We also meet David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who hangs around Lucien's friend and gets jealous whenever Lucien shows an interest in anyone but him. There's a lot of drinking, drug taking, jazz club hopping and whole lot of shout-talking, as the men who would shape the thinking of a generation begin to pull their ideas and philosophies together.

If this were just a bunch of 20-somethings yammering at each other, I might have tuned out early. But there are few very interesting things interwoven throughout the film. Allen's dizzying crush on the masculine/feminine Lucien is a charming thing to watch. Lucien knows exactly what his appeal is, and he uses it to keep Allen around for his brain power. Later, when Kammerer gets a little too possessive and stalkerish, he is killed, and Ginsberg must decide whether to lie to investigator or turn in a friend.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a youthful energy to Kill Your Darlings that could have gone off the rails in the wrong hands. Thankfully, first-time feature director John Krokidas (and co-writer with Austin Bunn) has a handle on his actors that keeps them from sounding like aggressively annoying children. I liked the brief appearance by the likes of David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Ginsberg's parents) and Elizabeth Olsen (as Kerouac's girlfriend), but it's Radcliffe and DeHaan who act as the yin and yang that hold the film together. The have a true friendship chemistry that emits the potential of something more; or maybe that's just us picking up on Ginsberg's wishful thinking.

Dropping these fantastic characters into the middle of a murder investigation shows us just how little these creatures have in terms of survival instincts, and watching them scramble outside their element is a real treat. Some may find them and their story a bit too loud and chatty, but there's a funny and charming kind of fumbling going on, honing ideas and finding their individual voices. It's not without its infuriating moments, but on the whole, Kill Your Darlings is a fussy, enjoyable romp through creative history. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Man of Tai Chi

There's no denying it: Keanu Reeves knows his classic Hong Kong martial arts films. And to prove it, he's directed this fun, down-and-dirty fight film about a secret fight club run by twisted, rich businessman Donaka Mark (Reeves) in which the competitors much fight to the death using two distinct fighting styles. In need of new competitor, Reeves finds Chen Lin-Hu (nicknamed Tiger Chen, which just happens to be the lead actor's real name) when watching Tai Chi competitive fighting on television. He snatches up Tiger and makes him an offer to take this largely meditative style of martial arts and turn it into a deadly sport in his live streaming contest. Tiger is against the idea at first, but acknowledges that the money could be useful to help save his master's temple and help out a few friends along the way.

So basically Man of Tai Chi is just one fight after another, culminating in the predicatable but exceedingly enjoyable final battle between Tiger and Donaka. There are a couple of nice camera angles and tricks that give the film a distinct '70s vibe, but thanks to some incredible fight choreography by the master Yuen Woo-ping (best know in America for designing the stunts for The Matrix trilogy and the Kill Bill films), this film pops with modern brutality and a fare amount of blood.

Working from a script by Michael G. Cooney, Reeves isn't trying to do anything serious here, either in his performance or his direction; this is clearly all about having fun watching people kick the living shit out of each other so hard that you will feel it in your seat. There's a secondary story about a police officer, Karen Mok, who is trying to bust this nasty fighting ring, all the while her boss (Simon Yam) is standing in her way for not-so-mysterious reasons. But that subplot feels like filler when placed side by side with Tiger Chen busting heads.

The only thing I'm not totally sure I'm sold on is Reeves' performance as the villain; he's so playing to the balcony seats that he comes across as ultra hammy and laughable. It's so outrageous, it almost seems intentional, but whatever he was aiming for, I'm not sure he hit the mark. This is actually a small complaint because the rest of the film kicks so much butt that it's easy to forget about what doesn't quite work. Man of Tai Chi is nutty, action-crammed kick in the head, and I enjoyed every concussion I got watching it.

Broadway Idiot

There is something almost primal about the process of any stage show coming together, but the sad fact is that hefty ticket prices keep people away from the theater. One of the more interesting stage shows I've seen in the last couple of years was American Idiot, an adaptation of the hugely popular concept album by Green Day. The 90-plus-minute, one-act stage production that eventually ended up on Broadway was about the way younger people have grown up with disillusionment about the world around them, whether it's in the form of government, popular entertainment (ironically) or each other. Structured like a rock opera of nothing but Green Day songs, the show was designed to be rough around the edges, and is about the last thing you'd expect to see on the the Great White Way.

And now, director Doug Hamilton has pieced together Broadway Idiot, not so much a making-of documentary about the show, but the story of Green Day front man and songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong's remarkable journey to discovering the deeper meaning and value of his own songs through this process that he wasn't entirely sold on at first. At various points in the production, the band could have pulled the plug, but clever and emotionally evocative arrangements of their music (by the show's director Michael Mayer and music director Tom Kitt) as well as stellar performances by the likes of John Gallagher Jr. (Short Term 12, HBO's "The Newsroom") sold them on the concept, so much so that Armstrong even briefly joined the cast once the show was a proven success, drawing people into the theater who had never been there before (due partially to the more reasonable ticket price, along with the band's huge following).

It's fascinating watching Armstrong and his bandmates (TrĂ© Cool and Mike Dirnt) react to the show's various elements and the process in general. But equally interesting is watching Mayer and his team working that much harder to make the show something that accurately reflects Armstrong's youth — the place where the stories and characters in his songs grew out of. Armstrong is clearly moved by the process and the familial closeness the production takes on. He even comes to the startling revelation that the theater is a place where people grow closer, the bigger and more successful things become, as opposed to the rock world where many fans and old friends abandon you when you achieve a certain level of success.

Just as a peek into the creative process, Broadway Idiot captures all of the crucial moments both in terms of the staging and in searching for the emotional core of these songs. But it's also a wonderfully eye-opening look at how a man who has been singing these songs for the better part of 10 years can still find new and vital information about them and himself through the filter of this process. Plus, it's near impossible not to get caught up in the drama, the tension and the excitement of putting on a new show and having no idea how the Broadway elite is going to respond. I don't have any great connection to the world of theater (full confession: I did see the first touring production of this show in 2012), but I was pulled into this story with both hands. The films opens today at the Music box Theatre.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Broadway Idiot director Doug Hamilton and American Idiot (the musical) director Michael Mayer.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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