Ender’s Game

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It is 2086. Fifty years ago the earth was attacked by the Formics, an ant-like alien species. They wiped out a significant part of the Earth’s population before being stopped kamikaze-style by the legendary human pilot Mazer Rackham. Though the Formics have not returned, an attack is still feared. Hence, the people of Earth need to be battle ready: they need a new Mazer Rackham.

The unpredictable nature of the Formics makes it highly difficult to combat them. Only children’s minds are capable of adapting quickly enough to defeat them. The brightest children are selected so that they can defend against those feared future attacks. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one of these. He was selected based on his excellent reflexes and how he handled being bullied at school. Commander Hyrum Graff sees in him a great talent and enables him to go to battle school.

Ender shows both great tactical insight and leadership in battle school. Though, he also has problems with authority. Nevertheless, Graff’s faith endures. Perhaps, he reasons, Ender is the right candidate to lead a preemptive strike on the Formics.

Ender’s game is the film adaptation of the book with the same name written by Orson Scott Card. I have been told it is fairly faithful to the written version. Graff is well portrayed by Harrison Ford. In contrast Asa Butterfield’s role as Ender seems to be a better fit in the early stages of the movie than at the end.

Ender’s game is a decent military teen sci-fi film. It reminded me of the underrated cult-hit Starship Troopers, though Ender’s game is much less satirical. Because of the more serious tone, I would have expected more explanation about the Formic’s motivations, which are left more vague here then in the book. This would have brought more balance to the movie. Nevertheless, recommended especially for sci-fi fans.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Summit Entertainment.

Thor: The Dark World

2013-12-03-Thor-The-Dark-World2011’s Thor was a welcome addition to the superhero movie genre. Some characters from that first movie, Thor and Loki, also appeared in The Avengers: a decent superhero ensemble flick in its own right. Now there is this follow up movie which focuses solely on Thor again.

Drawing inspiration from the original Marvel comic, Thor: The Dark World starts with an elaborate back-story concerning evil elves, the alignment of the nine realms and the aether substance. The evil dark elf Malekith wants to obtain the aether, which looks like a floating liquid, so that he can dominate the nine realms. On earth, Jane (Natalie Portman) discovers weird gravitational and portal effects near an abandoned warehouse. We learn that this is linked to the alignment of the nine realms. Predictably she shifts into an other realm and contracts the evil aether substance. This sets in motion the film’s main conflict. Thor takes Jane to his home world, Asgard, in order to rid her from the aether. Malekith then attacks Asgard to obtain the aether.

Though nicely depicted, the opening narrative seems contrived and a bit too serious for the superhero genre. The filmmakers stylistically allude to Lord of the Rings, but it never quite gets there. What The Dark World does get right, similar to the first installment, is the depiction of Thor’s world: Asgard. Not in the least because of Loki: Thor’s evil brother, who also brings some, much needed, lightness to the film. Though imprisoned, he is summoned to assist Thor in his quest to stop Malekith.

Though Thor is an entertaining movie with plenty of action, it feels more tired then the first Thor film. There is an odd imbalance between comic relief and overtly dark overtones. For superhero fans there are better movies than this one, perhaps The Dark World is a recommendation only for die hard Thor fans.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Marvel Entertainment

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Jordan Belfort was released in 2006 after spending nearly two years in prison. Being incarcerated for stock swindling, he was left with plenty of time to write his memoirs. His autobiographical writings are the basis for this recent crime comedy directed by Martin Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street has both been praised and criticized for its depiction of events. One thing is for sure: the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays Jordan Belfort, is an entertaining ride.

The ambitious Belfort takes a job as a stockbroker at a reputed firm. He quickly learns the ropes, including extensive drug use, but unfortunately the firm goes bankrupt. Belfort is forced to accept a job at a small company that trades penny stocks. Being an excellent salesmen he is highly successful and founds his own firm together with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a group of salesmen he befriended. His new firm, Stratton Oakmont, focuses on the ‘whales’: clients with lots of money. Essentially they inflate the value of a company by convincing clients to buy shares, but then quickly sell their own shares, profiting of the increased value and duping the clients in the process. And more money, for Belfort and his peers, means a matching lifestyle.

The Wolf of Wall Street paints an exuberant picture: yachts, parties, women, midgets (what?), cocaine, quaalude (look it up). It’s all there and the mix is right: it’s an entertaining roller coaster ride. Of course: you are looking at con men. Although I understand the controversy, some of the most enjoyable movies and series are about questionable characters. Secretly, everyone (also) likes characters that are not brave and honest. Though the movie does show Belfort’s downfall, it does so only very briefly. Perhaps rightly so, otherwise this would have been a very different movie.

Leonardi DiCaprio portrays an excellent Jordan Belfort, which at times borders on insane only to swing back again to overly friendly. His motivational speeches are perhaps a bit too long-winded and further drive up the running time, which is already a hefty 180 minutes. Nevertheless, perhaps this is offset after the office turns into a crazy monkey cage afterwards. There’s very little to criticize from a cinematic point of view. The story is a bit light, but that’s also characteristic of the crime comedy genre. One could also see this as satire: a complaint against a part of society where money is no longer a means, but an end. Recommended, regardless of the interpretive angle. Sell me this pen!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Paramount Pictures.

Gravity

2013-11-26-GravityEvery once in a while you come across a movie that is special enough that you tell everyone to go and see it. Gravity is such a movie. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who also helmed the third Harry Potter film as well as the excellent Children of Men, delivers a masterful piece of contemporary cinema. I realize I have already given away my conclusion in this introductory paragraph, nevertheless I urge you to read on, so I can tell you why you should see it.

Gravity starts with a peaceful scene in which three astronauts perform maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope. The Earth serves as a serene backdrop as they go about their way. For Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) this is her first time in space, for Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) it is actually his final mission. Unfortunately for them, the destruction of a nearby satellite triggers a chain reaction which causes a debris field to fly their way. The peaceful scene quickly turns into a messy hell with debris tearing up everything, and that’s only the start.

What makes Gravity so effective is the frequent use of first-person perspective, close-ups and long takes. The entire opening scene is in fact a single shot up until the moment the chaos breaks out. The viewers can literally feel both the vastness of space as well as the claustrophobic feeling of being in space suits and shuttles. We predominantly see the point of view of Dr. Ryan Stone, who has to really struggle to survive. Sandra Bullock does a very good job with this (heavy) role, which is in some ways reminiscent of that of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, though far less action-oriented.

Some scenes are perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but when those come you are likely to be so drawn into the film already, that it won’t be a distraction. The drama is not even really the focal point of the movie, what sets Gravity apart from other science fiction films is the extreme roller-coaster-like feeling of suspense. In fact some scenes may actually leave you feeling slightly nauseas.

Despite some minor flaws, like an unrealistic brief moment at the end of the movie, this is overall one of the best two science fiction movies I’ve seen in the past five years (Moon being the other one). A must see!

★★★★★★★★★☆

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Copyright © 2013 Warner Brothers

Elysium

2013-11-19-ElysiumThis summer was filled with major science fiction blockbusters. However, disappointments like Oblivion and Pacific Rim left me with little hope that any good original science fiction would hit the theaters this year. Luckily I was proven wrong, twice in fact. The second one will be the subject of an other post. Let’s first take a look at Elysium by Neil Blomkamp who was also responsible for District 9.

For those who forgot: District 9 was about aliens that – for a change – weren’t vastly superior to mankind. They just happened to make a crash landing on earth in a quite unpredictable place: South Africa. Being the polite and welcoming species that mankind is, we relegated them to live in slums. Though Elysium does not involve aliens, it does deliver the same type of social criticism that made District 9 an above average flick.

In Elysium we learn that in 2154 most of humanity still lives on earth, but in poor conditions. The wealthy minority – let us call them the one percent – live on an artificial torus-shaped space station named Elysium. Filled with villas, green pastures and advanced technology, Elysium is the dream of any earthling. However, we quickly learn that it is not easy to actually get there for the vast majority of people.

When three rogue ships carrying refugees approach the station, the minister of defense – an ice-cold lady portrayed by Jodie Foster – ruthlessly orders two of them to be shot to pieces. The third one barely manages to land on Elysium. A young mother carrying an ill child rushes into one of the deserted villas to place her child in a ‘med-bay’. To the mother’s relief, the child is instantly healed. Though a second later both are apprehended by human-form robots labeled ‘homeland security’.

Limited access to resources, like the med-bay which can instantly heal any disease, is what this movie is all about. Max is one of the lucky few earthlings that has a job. He works in a factory where the human-form robots are built. If that sounds good: it really isn’t. He is transported to work by a ramshackle bus, and the owner of the business treats his employees in a manner similar to how he handles robots: as replaceable parts. Getting to Elysium is Max’s childhood dream, and due to unforeseen circumstances he has to make that dream come true sooner rather than later.

In contrast to the other recent action science fiction films mentioned earlier, Elysium really does make you think about the story’s deeper implications. Besides that, it has plenty of action as well, which is at times perhaps a bit too visceral and too much. Luckily, the thing Elysium does gets right is populating its story with a diverse set of characters who all have clear motivations. No character is plain evil just for the sake of it.

Though not as thought-provoking and creative as District 9. With a clear story and good acting work (Matt Damon, Carly Shane, Jodie Foster), Elysium brings back some life to the action science fiction genre, in contrast with the rather lackluster attempts released in early summer. Worth watching, even if you’re not into science fiction.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Columbia TriStar