Friday 5: La La La La La La La
What’s your favorite song about a specific city?
I live in one of those places it’s almost impossible not to write about, whether you are a novelist, a journalist, a musician, or a poet. Mark Twain did it. Robert Louis Stevenson did it. Heck, Cameron Crowe recently did it. And if you want to know why my favorite of them all is Olomana’s “Ku‘u Home o Kahalu‘u,” just click to see this on YouTube and read the comments section. Just about every comment is something along the lines of, “I’m sitting here in [name of some place outside Hawaii], tears in my eyes as I remember home.” Runner up: “Waialua Sky” by the Fabulous Krush.
What’s your favorite song about a real, historical figure?
Without settling on one, it’s almost surely a song about Jesus, but I feel that may be cheating a little. So how about “James Dean” by the Eagles? You know what would be funny? If I said Ringo Starr’s “Liverpool 8,” which is of course a song about himself.
What are your favorite song and favorite group (or solo artist) from the classic Motown era?
Oh look. Another chance for me to say how much I just don’t like Diana Ross and/or the Supremes. Something about Ross’s voice just rubs me completely the wrong way. My favorite voice in all of the classic Motown era is Smokey Robinson’s, but my favorite musician of them all is Marvin Gaye. And my favorite song is “The Way You Do the Things You Do” by the Temptations.
What’s your favorite song by a musician (or band) you really dislike?
It’s got to be “Faith” by George Michael. That’s just a great song.
What’s your favorite song with the word “song” in its title?
The latest iTunes update wiped out about 80% of my library. The songs are still there in the media directory, but they’re not listed in the library, so I’m using that as an excuse to do something I’ve needed to do for a long time: go through the whole digital library, artist by artist and album by album and make sure things are indexed correctly, titled correctly, categorized correctly, and dated correctly. It’s long, slow, fantastically fun work (most of the time–I could do without taking the track numbers out of song titles one at a time; remember the early days of iTunes when we sometimes had to do that?), and I’m still on The Bird and the Bee, so with 24 letters of the alphabet left to re-add, I’m going to pick something from memory, and the winner is Extreme’s “Song for Love,” from the Extreme II: Pornograffiti album, one of my twenty favorite albums of all time. Nuno Bettencourt’s guitar solo beginning at around 3:13 is a thing of beauty, just a beautiful combination of tone, dexterity, melody, and feel. Oh, and Cherone’s vocal line in that section beginning at 4:20 is one of the highlights of the album. It’s something of a concept album, and this song is second-to-last, kind of bringing everything to a closing, positive, uplifting note, so in context the vocals that end this song are just about perfect. I know I’ve said this before, but Gary Cherone should have been the high point of Van Halen’s history. The band just forgot how to write good songs for that one album; if they’d worked it out, that would maybe have been the greatest American band ever, instead of the greatest American band ever being Van Halen with Sammy Hagar.
Paper Towns by John Green (2008)
Quentin “Q” Jacobsen is a few weeks from graduating high school, a few weeks from his last summer before heading to Duke, and a few weeks from leaving a pretty good childhood behind. A big part of this childhood, his lifelong crush Margo, can’t wait a few weeks, and after one crazy night involving three catfish, hair-remover, blue spray paint, a large quantity of Vaseline, and a dozen tulips, she disappears, leaving a strange set of clues Q is sure are meant to lead him to her. Margo and Q are connected by a discovery they made at nine years old—a dead man’s body in the local park—and Q can’t say for sure if he is meant to find Margo or just her body.
With the help of his friends Radar and Ben, Q follows one lead after another, exploring a series of “paper towns,” those many residential subdivisions in central Florida that for some reason were never completed, empty lots and empty buildings where there were meant to be families and laughter. Although his friends understand the importance of finding Margo, they are also consumed with band practice, video games, and who’s taking whom to the school prom, leaving Q to do much of the tracking by himself, all alone with his sense of urgency and bafflement.
There is no question that John Green can write. His voice is easy to read and he’s gifted with a sense of timing that catches the reader off guard with its wit. While I think he can be ostentatious in his style, more than just slightly show-offy, he writes with a flourish young readers can recognize and appreciate. His is a flair for situational humor with heavy doses of irony, an enjoyment of the absurd, and a talent for linguistic cleverness. I fully get why he is the darling of smart teens on Tumblr.
I have read two of Green’s other novels, Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, and I appreciated the author’s wordsmithing but thought his plots were juvenile, as if Green had spent his whole life learning how to write and not enough of it learning how to write a story. Halfway into Paper Towns, I realized I had laughed aloud at least six times, and knew I was going to have to recommend the book just for that, but I dreaded what I knew was coming: a plot point that would disappoint me, a climax suited for a teen movie but not a teen novel, and a resolution that would leave me yearning for less.
Those things never came, although there is a long car ride that will translate wonderfully for the film (which is in theaters now and which I have not yet seen) but doesn’t hold up to the would-this-really-happen standard a good novel should aspire to. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the novel’s final pages. There are stretches in the middle that get a bit long—Green forces us through too many ruminative passages on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” for example, but if those sections feel a little bit like exercises at writer’s camp, they can be excused for where they finally take us. This is so far the best thing I’ve read by Green, and it’s the first of his novels I can recommend without reservation.
4 of 5 stars (I really like it)
That’s an eleven-minute video, but just watch it, okay? Or if you must watch only a part, start from the 4:00 mark and see the cool soloing.
On an instrument-by-instrument basis, there isn’t a better rock band in the world than Dream Theater.
I’ve been boycotting Dream Theater for the past few years because the band dismissed its founding (and my favorite) member, Mike Portnoy. Someday I will come around and listen to the material with the new drummer, Mike Mangini, who by all accounts is doing quite well. I also suspect that Portnoy will be back with the band some time, maybe in the distant future, but eventually. Maybe I’ll loosen up then.
Bands change members, especially metal bands and progressive rock bands, and DT is a progressive metal band, so of course it’s doubly vulnerable. It’s been through three (excellent) keyboardists, for one thing, but the lineup had been very stable for a long time, through the band’s best stretch of albums. And I did not take kindly to the decision by the band to move on without its creative heart.
Their recorded output is enormous, and I only own a few albums and a couple of official bootlegs, so I think I’ll take this time in the interim to relax my boycott a little and fill in my collection of pre-Mangini DT.
James LaBrie, the lead singer, is probably the weakest link, and the only member of the classic lineup you wouldn’t put in the top twenty at his instrument.
Mike Portnoy is an unbelievable, versatile, expressive, thoughtful drummer. Easily one of the best, perhaps the second best in rock and roll, behind Rush’s Neil Peart.
John Petrucci is one of the underpraised guitarists. What always blows me away about his playing is how effortless hemakes it look.
I imagine that John Myung on bass guitar is, now that Portnoy isn’t in the band, the musical center of almost everything the band does. He must now the sound of DT (I wouldn’t know because I haven’t heard it!). And what a player!
And Jordan Rudess on keys is the best in the world. There was a point in the past few years where he surpassed Rick Wakeman.
Such an amazing collection of musicians. I’m thinking of them this morning because I received in the mail two official bootlegs. One is Dream Theater performing Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast album in its entirety, live in concert, and the other is Dream Theater performing Metallica’s Master of Puppets album live in its entirety. Two amazing performances.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Harcourt Brace & Company, 2014
Josh Bell, the narrator of Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Medal recipient The Crossover, lives to play basketball. He and his twin brother Jordan are a double threat on the court: Josh slam dunks the ball, while Jordan is money from the arc when he gets an open look. They are cheered on by their father Chuck, a former player in the NBA, and their mother, the assistant principal at their school. The brothers’ goal is to lead their middle-school team to a perfect record, but midway through the season, a pretty girl in pink court-shoes arrives at school and Jordan’s attention is suddenly divided. Add a few difficulties in school and some tension between his parents, and Josh has problems with the way things are changing.
Remember the greats,
my dad likes to gloat:
I balled with Magic and the Goat.
But tricks are for kids, I reply.
Don’t need your pets
my game’s so
Your dad’s old school,
like an ol’ Chevette.
You’re fresh and new,
like a red Corvette.
Your game so sweet, it’s a crêpes suzette.
Each time you play
it’s ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLL net.
If anyone else called me
fresh and sweet,
I’d burn mad as a flame.
But I know she’s only talking about my game.
See, when I play ball,
I’m on fire. When I shoot, I inspire.
The hoop’s for sale, and I’m the buyer.
The Crossover is a novel written completely in verse. The author’s style moves between freeverse and freestyle, sometimes reading like E.E.. Cummings and other times like A Tribe Called Quest. It’s a good mix, and the poems are well-paced little snapshots of action and exposition, sometimes providing the play-by-play of a basketball game and then recapping or defining the action with an interpretation or explication.
Josh has a lot of things going on, and Alexander does a great job of getting into his head as he processes issues of family, brotherhood, identity, romance, competition, and ambition. I’m not a big fan of using the field of play as metaphor in serious literature, but a pass can be written for books aimed at younger readers who might not find it cliche. The author makes a questionable decision near the end that doesn’t ruin the story, but I can think of better reasons to decide the opposite, which does count (in a small way) negatively against the book.
Still, it’s certainly Newbery worthy, something not every recent winner can claim, and it’s a lot of fun to read aloud. Grown-ups should be cautioned to read the book all the way through before recommending it to younger (below fourth grade) readers.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore by Robin Sloane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Clay Jannon is a mid-twenties victim of downsizing in Silicon Valley. His competence with digital design proves to be less in-demand than he expected, and he finds himself desperate to take any job that will pay the rent. At his rock-bottom moment, he walks into the titular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore, a crazy space with shelves reaching two or three stories high, loaded with books that seem to contain gibberish. The patrons are few in number but specific in need, entering the store at all hours of the day or night to return one book and ask for another.
It’s not long before Clay is working on the puzzle presented by these books and these borrowers. With help from a special-effects-artist roommate and a love interest who works at Google, Clay is soon not only moving in on strange discoveries about the bookstore and its mysterious owner, but he becomes personally invested, and he brings his friends along with him.
Author Robin Sloane creates an interesting story that puzzle-lovers will find difficult to put down. His prose is voicy as heck, something that can teeter between annoying and appealing:
I run my fingers through her hair, which is still damp from the shower. She smells like citrus.
“I just don’t get it,” she says, twisting back around to look up at me. “How can you stand it that our lives are so short? They’re so short, Clay.”
To be honest, my life has exhibited many strange and sometimes troubling characteristics, but shortness is not one of them. It feels like an eternity since I started school and a techo-social epoch since I moved to San Francisco. My phone couldn’t even connect to the internet back then.
“Every day you learn something amazing,” Kat says [possible spoiler removed]—she pauses and gapes for effect, and it makes me laugh—“and you realize there’s so much more waiting. Eighty years isn’t enough. Or a hundred. Whatever. It’s just not.” Her voice goes a little ragged, and I realize how deep this current runs within Kat Potente.
I lean down, kiss her above the ear, and whisper, “Would you really freeze your head?”
“I would absolutely, positively freeze my head.” She looks up at me and her face is serious. “I’d freeze yours, too. And in a thousand years, you’d thank me.”
But the likability of his characters, especially as they interact with his narrator, tilts the balance in appealing’s favor. Product-specific references, such as Kindle and Google, set the story solidly in today’s real world, but they make me wonder if this novel will feel dated in a few years. Yet they also present a few existential questions about how new technology and old technology can complement each other. Thousands of years after they were written, the words of the Bible and Homer are still with us; will Google still be with us even a hundred years from now?
There is a religious theme that I won’t explore here, and for much of the second half of the novel, the theme has the potential to ruin the mystery-solving aspect of the story. It manages to find some balance without going too new-agey or feel-goody, so that the end is satisfying at worst, ‘though it lacks a meaningful something deep that’s carryable for much longer after closing the back cover.
It’s an engaging, enjoyable read. I question its staying power and shelf life, but a questionable durability doesn’t erase the few hours of genuine pleasure this novel gave me. It’s tough to imagine very many people not at least enjoying swimming through its pages.
I haven’t seen R in person in a million years, and although I am not dreading it, I dread the conversation that I am pretty sure will take place. She will say, “How have you been?”
What will I say?
(a) “What’s it to you?” (this would be my first impulse)
(b) “Great! Just great!” (this would be the easy answer)
(c) “Mostly I’m okay, but I’m constantly, deeply sad almost all the time and keep myself busy so I can be other things too.” (part one of the true answer)
(d) “I don’t really have anyting to complain about, but there is now a ceiling on my happiness, and it’s not really that high a ceiling.” (part two of the true answer)
(e) “I’ve been expecting you to ask me this question, so for the sake of our being able to keep talking, I need to know how honest you want me to be.”
I really think (e) would be the best, most productive answer, but what if she honestly responds with, “I need you to be only as honest as will allow us to continue to have civil conversation and not ruin this day for all our friends?” Maybe that’s the best response anyway, to which I will give my (b) answer, or possibly (d) if I can see some amount of receptiveness in her eyes and if her eyes haven’t changed much.
I’m thinking of this because I’ve been in more and more contact lately with the friends we have in common, something that worries me. I’ve mostly removed the filter from my mouth that once kept me from even saying her name, so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. Every time I say it, I feel all the weight of the misery I’ve been in, not to mention the weight of the discomfort I imagine I’ve caused everyone by not being the gracious loser. “R and I used to talk about…” “Once, R said…” “When I was teaching with R, she…”
I just let it go now. And it’s caused me to feel a lot less pain, something I wouldn’t have predicted. If R and I ever find ourselves in each other’s lives again, I think the only way we’ll ever really be friends is if we can acknowledge the realness of our very long, very confusing, but very close relationship. I don’t know if her relationship with her family would allow that, to be honest. I had a conversation with her husband once, in a Starbucks when we ran into each other (unlike R, he’s made multiple unexpected appearances in my life), and he was candid about my role in her life before she knew him, so maybe we can all be candid up to a point.
I saw Inside Out this week and slept through most of it, not because it was boring but because I was so tired. What I caught of it, though, reinforces something I’ve felt for a very long time: that sadness is an important part of our growing up. I’m sad. Like, almost all the time, and while a lot of people think it’s an indulgence to swim around in it, as if it’s some kind of black jacket I wear so people know I’m moody and artistic, I think there’s more to it than that. Some of us are just sad.
One of the guys I still think of as my best friend seems to know very little of sadness, and I envy him, but I don’t think it’s a talent or skill or even tendency. His life has just been pretty good, while mine, at least in ways that are important to me, has been pretty lousy. I know I brought most of that lousiness on myself, and I am to blame for everything miserable that’s ever happened to me, and I deserve far worse, but they are still things that happened to me.
He’s married now, in kind of a strange way that now seems to make total sense. Because he’s not online much and I never see him in person anymore, I’ve gotten to know his wife on FB and Instagram. We have a few things in common besides our admiration for my friend, and it just all makes sense. He’s had a good, happy life, and there’s really no reason to expect it to be otherwise for a really long time.
We’re such opposites.
I’m writing all this mostly because I really think that maybe this is my life, and maybe this is my life for a reason. If I were married (to whomever) and had kids now, I would still be in the classroom, still teaching too many subjects and working too hard at it, and my lifelong ambition of being a career novelist would be one of those things I’d have traded in for all the other blessings.
My friends have spouses and children, and I can see that they’re happy and blessed. I don’t honestly know if that would do it for me. I might longingly hold on to some pipe dream of writing a novel, and it would never happen.
It still might never happen. But I’m here, and I’m doing this, and I’m not lonely and I live a pretty good life, and I’m still finding time, once in a while, to work on the writing. I write every day now, most of it for some kind of pay, and I squeeze in time to work on the personal writing, and who knows where that will lead, but at least I’m still working on it. My life, as it is now with all its low-ceilinged happiness and deep, yawing sadness, allows for it, and I am embracing it.
I don’t like the way the WP mobile app manages photos, so if I decide to put a few photos in this, you’ll have to wait to see them. I’m typing this up on the tablet while enoying a waffle at the 24-hour cafe in town.
There are several film reviews to post. They’re already written but I haven’t done the searching for photos yet to post with the reviews, and you know. I want my reviews to be pretty.
When I was at the birthday dinner with my family last month, my niece asked me if I play Tsum Tsum. I was familiar with it, of course, and I even knew what kind of game it was, but I hadn’t played it and told her so. She’s twenty, and I love her, but we’re not especially close. We’re definitely not as close as I always wished we’d become. Yeah, I was a lousy uncle. So I said, “I’ll play it if you want me to.”
“Yeah, you should play,” she said, “so you can send me hearts.”
I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I had a good idea, having been a short-lived Candy Crush Saga player (once I figured out that the social aspect of it was a total contrivance that had nothing to do with the game, I was done). That night, I downloaded the game and that was the end of my life. I was hooked.
I’m still hooked, although I haven’t had nearly as much time lately to play it. I generally save an hour before bed, but that doesn’t always happen. If you’re not playing it, I can’t say I recommend it, even though it’s fun and addicting. There are a ton of games out there just like it, but this one is kind of on cute steroids. And you gain virtual coins as you play, which you can spend on more Tsums, which just adds to the cuteness. At first, my goal was just to get a Baymax Tsum, but because the purchases are randomly selected, I couldn’t just save up the coins to buy Baymax. I had to buy a box, and there’s no telling which Tsum is in a box when you purchase it. Ugh.
It took me a month to get that Baymax. And by then it was just a habit already. If you are playing it, my LINE name is “scrivener,” so add me and we can send each other hearts.
I’m still watching Mom, and it has continued not to disappoint. Anna Faris is just great, and the on-screen rapport she has with Allison Janney is excellent. The Big Bang Theory is still my favorite show, but it may be time to put it to rest. There have been moments when the show remembers what it’s about (relationships!), little moments with just Sheldon and Penny or just Sheldon and Leonard that have been excellent, little throwbacks to when the series focused on those three characters, but the cast has gotten too big. I mean what is considered the main cast. The show is at its best when Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny are at the center of the story with the others in support. But now it’s gone and made stars of them all, and the show’s just not big enough for that. For all its many characters, M*A*S*H was a show about Hawkeye Pierce, and it never forgot that. TBBT seems to have forgotten.
The big news in some online circles I am peripherally part of is Fresh off the Boat, which I have been writing reviews of for <a href=”http://www.8asians.com/author/scrivener/”>8Asians</a>. I admire what it’s trying to do, and it’s good for a couple of laugh-aloud moments each week so far. My connection to that website means I sometimes get to watch episodes before they air, and we’ve been getting my non-spoiler reviews up the morning before they air. That’s kind of fun, and I’m enjoying writing the reviews. Click the link to see a list of my reviews.
I’m 70% of the way through the third book in Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy. It’s pretty dang good, but I’ve been stalled in the same spot for a couple of weeks now, because I know that the next time I pick it up to read, I’m not putting it down until I’m done, and I haven’t had that kind of sustained time lately. Depending on thow this ends, it might be a better series overall than The Hunger Games, and it’s already better than Divergent.
The day before I interviewed for that job with the engineering firm, I bought a new LED television. I’ve been watching the TV I bought the year before I finished college (1994), and it’s been on its last legs for a while. So since Santa Parents were generous this year, I used part of my Christmas gift to buy a nice-looking 32″ Samsung at Costco.
That was six weeks ago, and it’s still in the box. I got it home and told myself I wouldn’t set it up until I have a couple of the storage spaces in my house cleaned up and organized first. I’m getting there, but it’s been a long, slow process because I’m trying to do it right. I even bought a new Dustbuster (birthday money!) so I could get into those weird spaces. If I get as much done tonight as I have in mind, I’ll be able to move a few things into that space, which means newly open space for my new TV. Here’s hoping.
This is kind of stupid, but one of the things I’m most looking forward to with the new TV is seeing how all my old game systems look plugged into it. A photographic report on that is definitely forthcoming.
Okay. Going to go for a long walk before I finish cleaning out my old office at the community college. That’s the big project for today. *sigh*
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, etc. Directed by Peter Jackson.
The first installment in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy is my favorite; in fact it was my favorite film of 2012. I found the second chapter kind of scattered, with almost mind-numbing action sequences separated by not enough meaningful character development. It seemed the things I enjoyed most about the first film were minimized in the second, and the things I enjoyed least were maximized. This third episode’s title implied lots of action, as did Jackson’s record, but would it contain enough of the ponderousness, enough of the small moments I loved best about the first film, to satisfy me? That was the big question for me as I got comfortable for the very long marathon showing of all three films.
It was nice to experience those first two films again, and I discovered more to like about that second film. It was also really good just to review the story threads that were leading themselves to this final confrontation at the Lonely Mountain.
The film begins about fifteen minutes before the spot where the second film should have ended, with the dragon Smaug taking out his wrath on Laketown. We are then re-introduced to the other plot lines, with Gandalf confronting someone (you know who it is), the dwarfs reclaiming their mountain, the elves peeking in to see what everyone’s up to, the residents of Laketown seeking refuge, and Bilbo caught hopelessly and helplessly in the middle, seemingly little more than a companion now that his primary role as thief has been fulfilled.
The action is long, and only mildly interesting to me, ‘though I confess I enjoyed most of Smaug’s attack on Laketown, and there is an element to Thorin’s confrontation with Azog that I found tense, emotional, and quite rewarding. But the best parts are centered on our title character, the Hobbit who only wants to help out if he can. Bilbo Baggins spends one-on-one time with Thorin, Balin, and Gandalf, and these moments are laden with sentimentality, grace, sorrow, and love, those elements that make this series so much more than three-hour commercials for toys or mind-numbing showcases for computer technology. Fittingly it is Bilbo who brings everything into focus, who brings the gigantic, epic war down to its smallest, purest elements. To Bilbo, the magical ring stolen from Golem is little more than a useful curiosity; the return of the dwarfs to Erebor is a homecoming; Gandalf the Grey is a crafter of fireworks. And Bilbo, a hero to the core, is just a Hobbit helping his friends before returning to his garden.
There is a moment that is extremely easy to look past, a strange, quiet pause that seems laden with nothing. So often, the quiet moments in good films like this are there to make one think of something; the viewer pays attention to what is not said, and gleans some kind of insight into the characters and story. This moment, however, which Bilbo spends with Gandalf, is little more than what it is, just a quiet moment, a shared minute of companionship, and while a lot can be read into it, my own take is that six movies’ worth of beheadings, sword fights, and yelling is the noise that obscures the signal of six movies’ one meaning. One of the characters puts it into words later, but that seems extraneous to me, as wonderful a dialogue as it is. I’ve given it some thought, and it’s the best scene in the whole six-film body of work.
It’s so easy to take this trilogy for granted, to think of it as merely a three-film return to familiar, lucrative ground for a film-maker who has done little else worth commenting on. But this trilogy stands on its own as a remarkable accomplishment in playing big while staying small, something I feel I will always treasure as a lifelong lover of movies.
93/100 (but this film elevates the whole trilogy to 96)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland.
If you’ve seen and enjoyed the first two Hunger Games movies, you might as well see this, the third installment of series. Most of the good stuff from its predecessors is here, minus the actual games mentioned in the title. The revolution is taking hold, and Katniss Everdeen, such an inspiration to the oppressed districts in her role as champion from District 12, takes a new role as steam gathers for war against the government.
The one new character worth noting is Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin, who is very well cast, especially if you’ve read the novel and know what happens in what will be the fourth movie in the series. The others, minus the terrific Lenny Kravitz, are here again, as good or as bad as they’ve been so far. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is still outstanding, while Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Peeta and Gale are as stiff and uninteresting as they’ve ever been. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy is great and probably deserving of Oscar consideration, though it will never get it. And as I mention in my review of Catching Fire, Elizabeth Banks somehow manages to turn Effie Trinket into someone you actually like, developing her character in ways I never imagined.
It ends pretty much where you imagine it will. Looking forward to the final chapter.
I’m a little behind on my film reviews for 2014. Going to spend the next few days getting caught up.
Ender’s Game (2013)
Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld.
Directed by Gavin Hood.
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is a heck of a novel, one of those rare science fiction stories able to take hold of fans and non-fans of the genre. I’ve never really understood why it’s as popular as it is. It has great characters, a great story, and great action sequences, but lots of science fiction does, and nothing I’ve read in either SF or fantasy is as universally beloved.
Which means that the film based upon it comes in with all the advantages and disadvantages of an expectant, rabid fandom. I’m usually the sort who’s willing to accept a film adaptation on its own terms, comparing it to its source but not holding against it its inability to be as good. I think this makes me an ideal audience for a movie like this, and I can forgive its leaving out some pretty neat things, but I find it a lot harder to forgive bad movie-making decisions.
For those unfamiliar, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a gifted boy in some future version of earth that has survived an attack by an alien race. Earth’s government is certain that the enemy is coming back for another shot, so it prepares by training smart young boys and girls for the impending war. Ender demonstrates early tactical and interpersonal brilliance, as his instructors put him through increasingly difficult training tasks.
There’s more to it than that, but most of what’s left is best left to the viewer to discover, and my best advice about that is to see the movie if you’ve enjoyed the novel. It just seems like something you should do, even knowing that it’s not very much of a film. The film cost more than a hundred million dollars to make, but except for the very good sequences in the battle room (an arena where combat simulations are contested), most of the movie looks and sounds very cheaply made. One friend compared its look and feel to a typical SyFy Channel film, and while that seems a bit harsh, I have to concede that it’s what I thought, too. All I’m going to say about the acting is that everyone tries, but it’s just not very good. Viola Davis is maybe the one exception.
Worse, the dialogue is painfully obvious, cliche, and cheap, something I did not observe in the novel, and I re-read the novel very recently in preparation for this movie. Emerging at a time when such recently successful and well-made adaptations as The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Divergent (which was released a few months after), Ender’s Game suffers by comparison, and although it has a few things to recommend it, it has as many shortcomings. So if you haven’t read the novel, toss a coin.