‘Ender’s Game’ is solemn, ‘Free Birds’ is fun and ‘Last Vegas’ is divisive

Among the new movies that were released Friday, Nov. 1 at theaters throughout the Valley are a science-fiction flick for young adults, a Thanksgiving-themed animated adventure and an ensemble comedy set in Sin City.

12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a New York State citizen who, in the 1800s, is kidnapped and made to work on a plantation in New Orleans in the 1800s. Other stars include Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Paul Giamatti. (R – 133 minutes)

“12 Years a Slave” may be one of the most challenging motion pictures you will ever see. Director Steve McQueen’s new biographical drama based on Solomon Northup’s book about his experience as a slave plays out like a horror flick, leaving viewers shielding their eyes from the on-screen horrors and heartbroken over the barbaric brutality that was, unfortunately, not only real but also commonplace just a few generations ago. It is an extremely excruciating ordeal to endure but essential viewing for its powerful performances and psychologically commanding depiction of one man’s seemingly inconceivable ability to survive through such suffering. (Thumbs Up!)

Blue is the Warmest Color

Adèle Exarchopoulos plays a young girl who begins a romance with a male classmate but is soon swept off her feet by a mysterious, blue-haired girl – a confident older art student (Léa Seydoux). Playing exclusively at Harkins Camelview. (NC-17 – 187 minutes)

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is every bit as beautifully poetic as its title. However, clocking in at an exhausting 3-hour length and featuring a lovemaking scene that gets a little too up-close and personal – literally – and for too long, the new French-language drama that made a colossal splash at Cannes is not for everybody. There is abundant artistic value in the film, though, as director Abdellatif Kechiche graphically exposes emotions you never imagined could be manifested in a motion picture. It is not the earth-shattering masterpiece that hype would have you believe it to be but it is a titillating triumph nonetheless. (Thumbs Up!)

Ender’s Game

Asa Butterfield plays a brilliant young boy who is recruited by the International Military and trained to lead his fellow soldiers into a battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race. (PG-13 – 114 minutes)

“Ender’s Game” plays with some incredibly interesting ideas about the costs of war, the loss of innocence and the whole military mentality – fight in such a way that wins not only the imminent war but all future wars as well. However, the new science-fiction flick based on author Orson Scott Card’s young adult novel is so self-serious that most of the fun has been sucked right out of it. Its visuals are as stimulating as its themes but the story is simply too solemn to appeal to audiences on either end of the age spectrum. (Thumbs Down!)

Free Birds

Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson voice turkeys from opposite sides of the tracks who must put aside their differences, team up and travel back in time to change the course of history – and get turkey off the holiday menu for good. (PG – 90 minutes)

“Free Birds” is a fun and festive animated adventure that fills a gap in entertainment that has long been empty – a Thanksgiving-themed film that can be consumed by the whole family. Having said that, the ending leaves an awful lot to be desired as writer/director Jimmy Hayward takes the easy way out with an impractical conclusion rather than working his creative muscle in search of a solution that would both respect the holiday’s time-honored traditions and leave audiences of all ages feeling emotionally enriched. Still, both kids and adults are certain to gobble it up with a grin. (Thumbs Up!)

Last Love

Michael Caine plays a widowed, world-weary professor living in Paris who sees no meaningful future for himself until he meets a free-spirited young dance instructor (Clémence Poésy), leading him to rediscover the joy that only family and true friendship can offer. Playing exclusively at AMC Arizona Center. (NR – 115 minutes)

With “Last Love,” you get two movies in one. Unfortunately, only one of them is any good. The one that is – which occupies the film’s first half – is filled with heartfelt emotion and complicated themes of love, loss, letting go and living through it. But by about the motion picture’s midway point, writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck’s drama takes a turn in a slightly different direction and the story becomes less about the charming relationship between stars Michael Caine and Clémence Poésy’s likeable characters than it is about the trivial problems of people who, as it turns out, are not all that likeable after all. (Thumbs Down!)

Last Vegas

Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline play old friends who decide to throw a Las Vegas bachelor party for the only one of them who has remained single. (PG-13 – 90 minutes)

Some movies are strictly for certain audiences, delighting one demographic while failing to extract an equal enthusiasm from another. “Last Vegas” is such a film. Director Jon Turteltaub’s new comedy will have older viewers slapping their knee replacements with boisterous laughter yet have younger audiences checking their smart watches every few minutes. It has got an emotionally resonant message that audiences of all ages can, should and will appreciate but it is unfortunately underutilized and the humor simply lacks the same age transcendance – as does actress Mary Steenburgen’s singing. Still, seeing these four legends have fun is worth the price of admission alone. (Thumbs Up!)

Man of Tai Chi

Follows the spiritual journey of a young martial artist (Tiger Chen) whose unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club. As the fights intensify, so does his will to survive. Keanu Reeves co-stars and directs. Playing exclusively at Harkins Valley Art. (R – 105 minutes)

To its credit, “Man of Tai Chi” feels exactly like a movie that Keanu Reeves would make. The new actioner – the actor’s directorial debut – embodies every quality that defines the quintessential Reeves performance. It is cold, distant, flat, monotonous and drab – almost depressingly so. On the other, also like Reeves, it exhibits some spectacular martial arts skills. Therefore, those who want to see high-octane hand-to-hand combat and do not mind if it is presented in a way that lacks any personality whatsoever will likely love it whereas the rest of us would be better off waiting for Ted’s next excellent adventure with Bill. (Thumbs Down!)

Joseph J. Airdo

Joseph J. Airdo is a film critic, producer and on-air personality for Breakthrough Entertainment, a talk radio show airing 10-11 a.m. Saturdays on KPHX 1480 AM and BreakRadioShow.com that shines a spotlight on the practical perspectives of the topics and themes explored in movies. He has a pet duck named Frozen who is as opinionated about movies as he is. E-mail him at joseph.airdo@gmail.com.

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