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Game On

The young and the restless

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ENDER'S GAME. I'll go ahead and say it: I've never read Ender's Game. It didn't interest me in the first place, and now that author Orson Scott Card insists on disseminating his socio-political beliefs, I'm less inclined than ever to pick it up. Petty, childish rationale, I admit, and one I abandoned rather easily when I went to see the movie. Having done that, I kind of get what people have been going on about all this time. Ender's Game is, to Card's and screenwriter/director Gavin Hood's credit, a unique, textured look at large-scale conflict and the morality of killing through the eyes of a brilliant child. The movie is also rushed and uneven, but generally enjoyable.

Decades after narrowly avoiding total devastation brought on by invading Formics (giant ants from outer space bent on harvesting Earth's water supply), the global military decides children make the best candidates for super soldier-hood. Through an increasingly rigorous selection and training process, prospects advance toward coveted positions as military commanders. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), an unusual third child whose two older siblings both failed to make muster, distinguishes himself with his pragmatic attitude toward brutality, clear eye for strategy and capacity for empathy. Under the stern tutelage of Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) Ender makes quick work of the officer candidate program and rises to the upper-most echelon of military service. At those dizzying heights, with his human kindness balanced against his tactical tenacity, he faces a life-changing trial.

The world of Ender's Game, as Hood renders it, is immense, detailed and polished. It's clean to the point of being antiseptic, which I have to assume is also part of Card's vision. This aesthetic suggests that the adults are trying to eliminate the messy, unpredictable child-ness of their soldiers, just as they've eliminated variation and organic forms from the environment. Which is also a nice way of saying that the look of the movie isn't particularly inventive or original. While expensively appointed and impressively realized, it borrows too much from other genre pictures to distinguish itself.

The performances of a predominantly young ensemble, on the other hand, set this film apart. Butterfield's Ender comes across as a real boy struggling to accept the greatness thrust upon him. Hailee Steinfeld and Moises Arias, respectively fantastic in the Coens' True Grit and Jordan Vogt-Roberts' magical The Kings of Summer, prove that those earlier performances weren't flukes.

Until the third act, the combination of production value, performance and story make this a fun, captivating ride. But at that point the action becomes so precipitous, the drama so forced, that the overall effect dematerializes, the suspended disbelief comes crashing down, and we're left with something "less-than." PG13. 114m.

LAST VEGAS. If you've seen the trailer for Last Vegas, you've seen Last Vegas. And while you and I may not have completely wasted our time, we are certainly no better for it.

A group of boyhood friends from Brooklyn gather in Las Vegas to celebrate Billy's (Michael Douglas) impending marriage to a 31-year-old woman. Archie (Morgan Freeman) feels trapped and emasculated by his son's smothering attention following a minor stroke. Sam (Kevin Kline) finds himself trapped in Florida among the waiting-to-die. Paddy (Robert DeNiro) hasn't recovered from the death of his wife, and can't forgive Billy for not attending her funeral. Ostensibly, this is a study in facing mortality, embracing life and the importance of friendship. But handled as it is, it becomes a sad paean to the idea that, in their late 60s, these characters are all at death's door. As much as the movie might try to make up for this depressing narrative thrust with girls in bikinis and day drinking, the abiding effect is sadness.

Because the principal actors are beyond pros, Last Vegas is more watchable than it has any right to be. The writing is low-bar standard at best, and the production meets it on that level. But the actors, particularly Kline, make the most of it and mine humor from some pretty dire set-ups. So at least it's got that going for it. PG13. 105m.

FRUITVALE STATION. A lot has been said about this movie, most of it rightfully so. Based on the shooting death of Oscar Julius Grant III by B.A.R.T. police on New Year's Day, 2009, Fruitvale reconstructs Grant's last day, presenting him as a young man poised at a crossroads. Heartfelt, compact and sometimes surprisingly evenhanded, it and writer-director Ryan Coogler deserve attention, as do the considerable talents of Michael B. Jordan, who gives a performance of impressive breadth and depth.

The movie opens with real camera-phone footage of the interaction leading up to Grant's murder, which points to the most problematic thing about the movie. This is a real event, a recent one that was shockingly well documented and from which a lot of people have yet to recover. As a result, much of the conversation about Fruitvale is consumed by partisan arguments for and against the police and Grant himself. This is inevitable, and unfortunate. People use the movie to bolster their own arguments regarding the case, but I was struck mainly by the apolitical nature of Coogler's storytelling. He's certainly sympathetic to Grant and his family, but he doesn't shy away from portraying him as a complicated, often difficult individual. At bottom, Fruitvale Station, tough and tragic as it is, impressed me with its profound, nuanced humanism. R. 85m.

— John J. Bennett

Previews

THOR: THE DARK WORLD. More flowing locks and Norse god mayhem than you can shake a hammer at in this post-Avengers sequel. PG13. 112m.

Continuing

BAD GRANDPA. Jackass ringleader Johnny Knoxville entertains as an old guy hitting the road (and everything else) with his grandkid. R. 92m.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Tom Hanks is beset by Somali pirates in a charged and riveting drama. PG13. 134m.

CARRIE. Prom prank goes awry in an uninspired remake. Fine work by Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore as the mother and daughter with issues. R. 99m.

THE COUNSELOR. A strong cast, great writer and fine director, but this tale of a lawyer's big drug deal gone wrong still feels dull. R. 117m.

FREE BIRDS. Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson voice animated time-traveling turkeys off to change Thanksgiving's main course. Yes, you just read that. PG. 91m.

GRAVITY. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are adrift in space. It's the best of sci-fi with a real human story. PG13. 90m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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