In writer/director Gavin Hood's sci-fi adventure Ender's Game, our titular hero (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-year-old who's bullied both at school and at home, whose gestating anger leads to frequent violent outbursts, and whose frighteningly focused skills at computer-simulated war games not only earn him the respect of his peers but, eventually, the grateful thanks of every man, woman, and child on the planet. It is, in short, a Revenge of the Nerd fable to out-Carrie Carrie, and about the strongest argument for 24/7 video-game compulsion that any young game-hound could wish for. Just keep playing, you can hear the movie whispering to its console-obsessed demographic. One of these days, you'll show 'em. You'll show 'em all.
That, at least, was the unsettling, occasionally terrifying subtext I gleaned from Hood's film, which is based on author Orson Scott Card's 1985 YA-lit sensation (a work - surprise, surprise - that I've yet to read), and which feels like one of those adaptations that offers the overall gist of the novel without delivering much sense of why, for its legions of fans, the book is such a cultural touchstone. I actually had a pretty good time at Ender's Game. Sure, the dialogue is stilted, and the characters are mere types, and for an entertainment about Earth's revenge against a race of enormous grasshoppers from outer space - a Starship Troopers for Generation Z - it's all bizarrely humorless. (I registered exactly one intentional joke about 45 minutes into the picture, although the film's misguided solemnity, and Harrison Ford's expected barking as the grim-faced Colonel Graff, did make me chuckle inappropriately at times.) But it's a fast-moving, engaging piece of work with a strong, tough-minded performance by Butterfield and some really lovely zero-gravity visuals - even if their effectiveness is dulled a bit by the recent release of Gravity - and the climactic narrative surprise, for me, truly was a surprise; it turns out that there actually are a few perks to being criminally out of the literary loop. Hood and his filmmaking team have little to be ashamed of, and quite a bit to be proud of. So why, in the end, did I leave the experience (the IMAX experience, no less) feeling so empty?
The movie's storyline, in basic outline, finds Butterfield's tormented Ender recruited to an interstellar training academy following an attack, many years prior, by the aforementioned space insects - a global apocalypse that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. With Earth's children now trained, from birth, to want to join in the retaliation against the bugs' home planet, Ender's single-minded dedication to the mission and unique problem-solving skills capture the attention of Ford's Colonel Graff and Viola Davis' Major Anderson, who quickly promote him - amidst much internal controversy - to their teen squadrons' higher ranks of command. Persistent adversity and grudging respect follow, as well as a lot of déjà vu if you've seen Starship Troopers, any of the Harry Potters, or even An Officer & a Gentleman. (Nonso Anozie plays the fierce black drill sergeant who orders Ender to "drop and give me 20.") And through it all, Ender practices his combat strategies via virtual-reality exercises in both his spacecraft's "battle room" and his personal laptop; whether in grandly-scaled or intimate formats, Ender's eyes almost never leave a screen.
As the book's (and maybe the movie's) bigger fans will no doubt tell you, there's more to Ender's Game than that. But I guess it's that last detail that kept me from ever getting fully on-board with Hood's outing, as there's a weird, hermetically sealed vibe to the proceedings that makes it feel as though everything was taking place in an emotional vacuum. Plenty of tears are shed by Butterfield - though not, amazingly, by Davis, our current big-screen-crying champion - yet strangely, nothing much seems to be at stake in the film. This is partly due to the young troops' portrayals, Butterfield's aside, feeling so wooden and so disconnected from the material; even True Grit revelation Hailee Steinfeld looks like she's Skype-ing in her performance. (To be fair, the film's adults are barely better, with Davis typically watchable but stuck in a dimension-less role, and a facially tattooed Ben Kingsley leaving the impression that his best scenes as the bug-squashing legend Mazer Rackham were left on the editing-room floor.) And heaven knows the movie's myriad clichés doesn't help matters, with Ender's gradual rise through his ranks as preordained as his momentary lapse in confidence followed by his quick return to form.
Yet while I'd imagine that Card's novel is rich in observation and motivation and particulars, Hood's movie, I'm afraid, just isn't; even the promising threat of Ender emerging as a potential psychopath is left unexplored. One good-looking, mildly gripping sequence follows another, but none of them - not even the climactic one that delivers that sneaky plot twist - suggests any real dramatic import or complexity, and the narrative details are so sketchily presented that, at least for fellow newbies, they inspire more questions than they answer. We learn, for example, that the U.S. government has enacted legislation that allows only two children per household - more with special permission - and that kids are the ones being recruited to fight the space 'hoppers. So why doesn't the government want parents to have as many children as possible? Wouldn't more potential fighters increase our likelihood of victory? The book's devoted fans probably know the answer to this and other questions, but in Hood's adaptation, we filmgoers don't, and after the diverting but somewhat anesthetizing experience of Ender's Game, I'm not that eager to learn. It's the cinematic equivalent of watching a really outstanding video-game player in action for 105 minutes - enjoyment that you realize, in the end, is merely peripheral, with the real thing just out of reach.
Last Vegas casts Michael Douglas as an eternal commitment-phobe who finally pops the question to his much, much younger girlfriend, and Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, and Morgan Freeman as the childhood pals who join him for a hopefully debaucherous bachelor-party weekend in Las Vegas. So, in effect, it's like The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson played by Douglas, De Niro, and Kline. This is normally the sort of high-concept pitch to surprise-averse, easily amused patrons that would make my teeth ache, and I'll admit, I found most of director Jon Turteltaub's and screenwriter Dan Fogelman's comedy irritating to the nth degree - 100 minutes of perils-of-aging gags interspersed with cutesy sentiment posing as legitimate emotion. (This thing, if adapted for the stage, could play the nation's dinner-theatre circuit for decades.) But I'm not quite enough of a jerk to pretend that I didn't have any fun. Freeman, who too rarely gets the chance to be goofy on-screen, delivers a classic, revved-up monologue while high on Red Bull and vodka, and shows off some disarmingly sweet dance moves. A few of Fogelman's senior-baiting lines display some actual wit. (Upon learning that Douglas' fiancée is almost 32, Freeman counters, "I have a hemorrhoid that's almost 32.") Kline, despite the 66-year-old reading as a good two decades younger than his co-stars, makes us remember just how much he's been missed during his near-total on-screen absence of late. And best of all, Mary Steenburgen shows up as a lounge singer with a penchant for '50s-pop re-imagined as torch songs, and her ever-infectious grin and tart readings suggest that she's having as good a time being there as we are seeing her there. A few months ago, in RED 2, Mary-Louise Parker got to play the ingénue at age 48. Now it's the 60-year-old Steenburgen's turn. Stockard Channing, call your agent pronto.
As the animated comedy Free Birds concerns a pair of turkeys (voiced by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson) who take a time machine to 1621 to prevent their species from being the food of choice at the first Thanksgiving, I probably shouldn't be asking for things like clarity and logic. And there are enough funny lines here to keep grown-up viewers moderately entertained, as when Wilson asks Amy Poehler's bird whether she knows the word "hypothetically," and she replies, "No, but I can imagine a scenario in which I might." But I do have a few needling questions about this aggressively manic and, all told, über-loopy trifle that maybe director/co-writer Jimmy Hayward can answer. (1) Why, when humans interact with our feathered heroes, do they hear the turkeys' dialogue as a series of "gobble gobble gobble"s, yet they have no trouble accepting them answering the door or high-fiving the delivery guy? (2) Why hire Wilson for the lead when all we can hear is Lightning McQueen, and when his constant, horrified howlings of "Aa-a-a-a-a-a!!!" would've been much more effective if performed by Macaulay Culkin? (3) Why add insult to historical injury by presenting us Native American characters in 1621 who call each other "dude"? (4) Why screen Free Birds at cineplexes when, as the climactic product placement suggests, it would have made for a far better fit at nationwide Chuck E. Cheese's? And (5) Why would anyone make a Thanksgiving comedy for children that so blatantly preaches against the recognized traditions of the holiday? At my screening, I heard a little girl ask "Why?" about practically every plot specific over the film's entire running length. She also asked, "What just happened?" on at least three separate occasions. I was stumped too, kid.