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Out in Theaters: ‘THE KEEPING ROOM’

“What if we were men?” The last utterance of Daniel Barber‘s female-led The Keeping Room is very much in line with the film’s desire to flip 19th century farmland femininity on its head. I won’t spoil the context of that statement with any more information but it wouldn’t hurt to keep the phrase front and center while watching the film because in many ways the Civil War-era thriller is about that very philosophical metamorphosis. Barber’s film feels Kafkaesque in terms of its characters transformation, here from female to “male” rather than human to bug. Whatever that parallel may imply. Read More

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Out in Theaters: PITCH PERFECT 2

Your enjoyment of Pitch Perfect 2 will be directly correlated to your willingness to endure acapella puns. That is, it’s only acappealing to some. Still with me? Let’s continue. In so much as this Pitch Perfect silliness could be confused with the cloying high school sugar rush that is Glee, the two share poppy musical stylings but are dished up with distinctly different flavors: irritating and irreverent. I’ll let you suss out which is which. Read More

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Out in Theaters: BEGIN AGAIN

Begin Again is the type of movie that comes with a set of instructions: Pre-heat oven to 400°. Mix divorce, heartbreak, success, failure and teen angst in a bowl while stirring in heavy doses of music. Cook for 104 minutes or until golden brown. Your film is now done and ready to enjoy!

What you see is what you get. Alcoholism is communicated via bottle: whiskey on the table and a beer in the fridge. You don’t get to witness any of the debilitation or struggle that comes with it. An empty drink is supposed to fill the gap. This is like journeying through South America and filming the mosquito bites. Or, you know, casting Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine as a pop star and covering all the tattoos.

Director/Writer John Carney is a good enough cook to blend his ingredients just right without getting into the complicated stuff. He knows when to flip the dish and what to stuff it with, and sometimes he’ll throw in a dash of spice to give it a kick. It may not turn out perfect, but he’s put enough love and time into it to make a good meal out of it.

Luckily for Carney, it’s hard to screw anything up when your main dish is a 5« serving of Mark Ruffalo. No, he’s not doing any detective work in Begin Again, save maybe gumshoeing his way into our hearts. Ruffalo is simply ‘Dan,’ a music producer who started his own record label from scratch alongside Saul (Mos Def)—Carney doesn’t bother to give any of his characters a last name. As good music gave way to pop and a divorce with his wife took its toll, Dan found the bottle and never took his lips from it. After an outburst in front of some high-profile customers, Saul cans Dan, who tries to take some paintings and employees with him. “This isn’t Jerry McGuire!” Saul says.

Actually, it kind of is. A beleaguered and stressed agent gets fired and starts over with a new philosophy and a new client. This time it’s Greta (Keira Knightley), a British singer-songwriter whose boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) gets caught up in his newfound fame and cheats on her, leaving her alone in New York City. She’s got a meek voice and some strong lyrics, but it takes a drunken Ruffalo to notice her talents. He tells her he’ll use his connections to get her a record deal. Soon they’re recording an entire album on New York streets with a full band provided by Cee Lo Green, Julliard and some random kids Ruffalo finds in an alleyway.

Ruffalo sets the beat. He’s endearing, keenly funny and he’s got one of those smiles that make you smile back. Carney’s given him something to do with his hands as he’s always got some booze tightly grasped. Mark’s drunk is a jolly one, more tipsy than dizzy. He’s the type who’ll wake up in a dumpster and giggle about it then start drinking again. It makes you wonder if he’s even acting. Ruffalo toes the line and he’s having fun with it. He’s the main source of comedy. You can’t help but want to grab a beer with him.  But, his sober side shows a hidden tenderness, a latent passion. Hailee Steinfeld is strong as Ruffalo’s neglected daughter, and their father-daughter relationship makes for good moments.

Knightley’s the kick. She’s got a shy voice but a strong personality: she’s always wearing a confusing amount of fabric, which seems to fit the layers of depth she’s getting at in her role. Ruffalo and Knightley spend a night together in New York, dancing and sharing music on a CD player like old friends. Their relationship is so fun that you hope Carney doesn’t ruin it with romance. Her smart performance and Carney’s shrewd writing keep you guessing. Surprisingly, she’s even able to bring out the best from first-time film actor Adam Levine. In a fantastic break-up scene, Levine plays a song he’s written on the road. Knightley can tell it’s not for her; she slaps him across the face. When he smashes his glass of wine, Knightley’s the one that’s shattering.

Maroon 5’s head man is a strange case as he isn’t really acting so much as pretending. A pop star in real life, it’s difficult to look past Adam and see the ‘Dave.’ Carney gives him enough that he isn’t reaching: he’s calling upon real experience. Though he keeps up with the cast, it’s hard not to wonder why he was chosen for the role. You wouldn’t cast Peyton Manning in a football movie and call him Jim. Carney’s pushing suspension of belief too far.

Overall, it’s hard not to like what Carney’s cooked up here, though at times it gets uppity. There’s a lot of “it’s all about the music man!” thrown around, when the music is nothing you haven’t heard before. Instead of the songs, it’s the quirks—touches of comedy, theg dynamic between Ruffalo and Knightley, genuine performances from the whole cast—that get you tapping your feet right along with it.

With music and New York serving as backdrops, Begin Again is touching, funny and lively enough to merit a taste. Imaginative and different, it challenges what you would normally expect from a rom-com. Carney doesn’t overcook it, and there’s spice enough to defy expectations. I left the theater full. Maybe even a little too full.

B+

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Out in Theaters: ENDER'S GAME

“Ender’s Game”
Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Moises Arias, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
114 Mins
PG-13
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Ender, a natural born strategist, waxes philosophy like he’s Sun Tzu. Taking “The Art of War” to its next logical step, Ender believes it’s not enough to understand his enemy. For him, truly understanding your enemy comes hand-in-hand with loving them. When you know someone well enough to predict their moves militarily, you glimpse into their soul. All at once, this zen of inter-connectivity gives Ender an upper hand in battle but also puts him in a constantly state of moral dread. He knows he can be a mighty conqueror the likes of Caesar but doesn’t know if he should be.  

Based on the popular young adult novels by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game is built on a foundation of tough philosophical questions like these. Tackling ethical issues that date back to the dawn of fighting with sticks and stone and span to our current climate of piloted drone warfare, moral quandaries are given precedence in the film, but often come across as heavy-handed and poorly thought through.

For a movie entirely about tactics, it’s lacking in tactical approach to philosophy as process. Socrates, famous for breaking down prejudices in order to reach universal truths championed the dissection of established beliefs through reasoning alone. To discover truth, he used critical analysis to better understand the world around him and the many false beliefs that dominated society at large. Here, Ender’s Game is philosophy as a means to an end, an “I told you so” of childish rashness rather than a contemplative, almost meditative, study. Rather than a thought process, here philosophy is a bat. Like Bonzo, you’ll want to be sure to cover your head from the beat downs to come.

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Philosophical dissection of Ender’s Game aside, the film floats by on the freckled charm of Asa Butterfield (Hugo). Unlike his peers, Ender has a preternatural tact for foreseeing the consequences, good and bad, of his physical actions and a pension for using violence to prevent future violence. Butterfield does a fine job at conveying the dueling nature of Ender’s innocence and incessant scheming. At once aggressive and acutely aware of his dangerous aggression, Ender is a morally complex character – a suiting trait for the morally complex world he inhabits.

On Earth, 50 years have passed since a devastating alien attack almost wiped out the planet’s population. Like a post-9/11 America, tapestries hang in offices and homes alike, wallpapering sentiments of “Never Forget.” At the hands of the bug-like Formics, Earthlings faced their demise but managed a narrow victory in a play of much-celebrated battlefield bravado. One man, we are told, single-handedly chased the enemy off and ever since, Earth has awaited the return of their ruthless enemy, all the while training legions of child soldiers.

Picked as the last hope for humanity, children are utilized for their fast processing skills, unfaltering obedience, and gullible code of honor. Ender is chosen to lead not because of his tendency towards violence but because of his thought process within said violence. Never the one to start a fight but always the one to finish it, he’s not a sadist, but a tactician. For these qualities, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees Ender as the ideal candidate to lead Earth’s troops into the final battle with the Formic.
   
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Joining Butterfield is a legion of youth actors that act little more than their age. Moises Arias as Bonzo and Hailee Steinfeld as Petra both do caricatures of the seething bully and flirty love interest but Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine is really the most reined in of these child performers. Her character is harmony, her performance refined, a nice counterpoint to the violent lifestyle that Ender’s profession has surrounded him by. She and bullying older brother Peter are the fulcrum points around which Ender measures himself. As Colonel Graff says, he needs to fall somewhere between them. He must harness both violence and peace – he must become a cocktail of serenity and rage.

As Ender trains to become a commander, he must undergo physical challenges that hone his motor skills and mental games meant to whet his battlefield acuity. In a turn of revamped Quidditch – except without brooms, magic, or gravity – the “launchies” spent most of their days training in an arena-based game of space dodge-bullet, where they earn points for blasting each other with stunners. Like Quidditch, the game can be won, regardless of points accumulated, if one team member passes through their opponents’ gate unscathed. Unlike Quidditch, this tournament has bearing outside the arena as the victor will go on to lead Earth’s army against the evil bug aliens. Perhaps this convoluted plot point is more an issue with the source material than the movie, but I’ve never heard of a Superbowl winning team captain going on to lead an army.

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Why the young launchies must spend so much time pushing their bodies to the limit when all eventual warfare is exclusively done through drone command is never addressed. Nor is the fact that regardless of the grueling training, none of the launchies – all of whom are on one side or the other of the scrawny-to-chubby spectrum – seem to put on any bulk or shed any pounds. They’re all in the same physical shape as day one. Surely this has to do with the fact that the film employs underage performers, and you can’t quite push a 12-year old to shed pounds like Christian Bale, but oversights like this are noticeable throughout and work to diminish the sense of reality director Gavin Hood is working so hard to create.

As the film pushes towards a close, the inevitable last act twist is somewhat foreseeable but nevertheless cements the relative worth of the film. Barking out commands with the crackly voice of a teen in metamorphosis, Ender leads his troops to video-simulated victory after victory until a crushing reality is revealed: maybe it’s not a game after all.

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In blurring the lines between video game violence and real world violence, Hood explores the hefty moral consequences of drone warfare, even when he’s being too clunky for his own good. While I admit to not having read the book, the ending comes out of left field, begging for a sequel and an impending franchise. There’s a delicate art to franchise building that used to revolve around worth but nowadays is left at the behest of the filmmaker. It’s as if a “what comes next?” cliffhanger is a necessity for any movie that costs over $100 million dollars. The question is: if you build it, will they come?

While the communist undertones, expressed here as the “hive mentality,” may be outdated now, many of the issues seen in Ender’s Game are even more relevant today than they were when it was written (i.e. drone warfare, bullying, surveillance, video game violence, child soldiers, etc.) However, Hood can’t help himself but to let them fly in your face, like the drilling of drones in the film’s finale, never really developing the ever-important why? behind it all.

C

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