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ABOUT TIME

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One hopes that writer-director Richard Curtis doesn’t think he was doing anything original with this time-travel romantic comedy. Even the title of the new effort from the creator of “Love, Actually” is a sad cliché, but the whole plot treads the same territory as “Somewhere in Time,” “The Lake House” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and its mixture of whimsy and mawkishness is familiar, too. Watching “About Time” brings a strong feeling of déjà vu, and not just in that cinematic “Groundhog Day” sense (a far more enjoyable movie, by the way).

The focus of the plot is Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a klutzy young fellow whose befuddled dad (Bill Nighy) informs the lad on his twenty-first birthday that the men in their family are endowed with the power to travel through time simply by enclosing themselves in a dark place and concentrating. But the ability is limited to returning to moments you’ve previously experienced yourself, merely to relive them or, if necessary, to alter them for the better.

Tim immediately seizes on the opportunity to redo some of his more embarrassing faux pas, especially those involving his ineptitude with girls. But after failing in his attempt to woo his sister’s friend (Margot Robbie), he largely abandons the game, instead going off to London to begin his apprenticeship in the law, and moving in with his father’s friend Harry (Tom Hollander)—a curious living arrangement that seems designed merely to introduce in the playwright an acerbic character who can deliver a string of comically cynical remarks.

In any event, it isn’t long before Tim encounters Mary (Rachel McAdams) in a typically oh-so-cute meeting in one of those restaurants that serve customers completely in the dark. It’s love at first non-sight, but unhappily Tim soon finds that he has to relive that night in order to save Harry from a disastrous professional embarrassment, and in consequence the whole episode with Mary is excised from history. That requires him to arrange a whole new scenario for them to meet, which leads to his smoothly removing her from a relationship with another possible suitor and linking up with her romantically.

That’s not the first time that Tim uses his ability—which remains unknown to Mary—to keep their happiness going into marriage and family life. But he employs it to address other needs as well, in particular crises involving his troubled sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), whose habit of acting out sends her into a downward emotional spiral and threatens her safety. And the problem is that every change he makes in the past has unforeseen consequences, bringing the realization that even a power such as the one he possesses can’t protect you from sadness and loss.

There are some charming moments in “About Time,” most involving not Tim and Mary but Tim and his dithering father, who, as played by the always watchable Nighy, is easily the most endearing figure here. But most viewers will enjoy Hollander’s caustic comments, especially since they add some edge to the prevailing blandness and crass sentimentality, and there’s an amusing digression involving the performance of a scene from Harry’s new play by Richard Grant and the late Richard Griffiths, which could be better written but still gives one the opportunity to savor these two old hands’ skill at playing off one another.

On the other hand, one has to put up with a string of bits involving Tim’s uncle D (Richard Cordery), an amiable but eccentric fellow whose extreme forgetfulness is surely a sign of mental disability—a situation that’s treated as almost a public service message for thoughtfulness to those less fortunate. And then there’s all the material surrounding Kit Kat, a flawed girl who’s apparently intended to touch our hearts but is actually as irritating as one might expect any character with that nickname to be.

“About Time” looks lovely, with the English locales given a glow by cinematographer John Guleserian that’s clearly meant to feel magical. Meanwhile Gleeson succeeds in reminding us of the young Hugh Grant, which is what’s obviously needed here, and McAdams makes a pretty partner for him. Hollander seizes every waspish opportunity Curtis affords him, as Cordery does every chance to look lovably lost, but poor Wilson can do little with the impossible-to-like Kit Kat. Nick Laird-Clowes’ score is not only syrupy but makes the mistake of employing Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” which has appeared in so many films and trailers by now that it’s become an aural cliché.

In the end Curtis has a point to make, but it’s no more than the banal observation that one should savor every moment in life and not take things—and people—for granted. A nice sentiment, to be sure, but hardly one that exudes originality—instead it reeks of something else, especially when at more than two hours the movie is way overlong. When this schmaltzy, brutally manipulative dramedy finally grinds to a halt, it’s you who’ll probably be saying “It’s about time.”

ENDER’S GAME

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For most of its running-time “Ender’s Game” is essentially a junior-league version of “Starship Troopers,” though one told with pompous seriousness rather than a sarcastic edge. But in the last reel it turns into a pint-sized session on the captain’s bridge of the Enterprise, complete with a ponderously humanistic concluding message. Handsomely mounted but silly and tedious, Summit Entertainment’s hoped-for successor to its “Twilight” behemoth is more likely to follow in the footsteps of “Tron.” Of course, the picture does have a built-in audience—the readers of the young adult novel by Orson Scott Card on which it’s based (and which has thus far spawned four sequels). But it’s unlikely to have much appeal beyond that fan base.

For those unacquainted with the book, in a future when humankind has just barely fought off an invasion by an insectoid race called the Formics, teen Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a recruit being trained in Battle School to serve in the next generation of earth’s defenders against the aliens. The premise is that it’s been determined that youngsters will be more capable of handling the split-second reaction demands of modernistic space weaponry because of their familiarity with the electronic devices they use as a matter of course. (You might think that this notion panders to kids who can’t be pried from their smart phones and video games—and you’d be right.)

But of course digital dexterity isn’t enough. For true greatness a child must be possessed of an almost preternatural combination of intellect and instinct that’s the key to strategic brilliance; only such a prodigy will be capable of leading the terrestrial force against the Formics. Gruff General Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), who heads the selection and training process, is certain that Ender is The One, combining the strengths of the two older siblings who proved unequal to the task—his overly volatile, violent brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) and his excessively compassionate sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Graff’s colleague Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), who’s in charge of psychological testing, isn’t so sure.

Much of “Ender’s Game” is devoted to the training Wiggin undergoes to prove his mettle, in which Graff deliberately puts the lad into situations where he has to confront bullies like squad commander Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). But although many of his classmates dislike the cerebral but steely boy, he gradually builds a company of devoted friends around him—most notably pretty Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), best buddy Bean (Aramis Knight) and supportive Alai (Suraj Parthasarsthy). Even the initially hostile Bernard (Conor Carroll) is ultimately won over by Ender’s leadership skills. After his final training with the legendary Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who served as the Ender of the first invasion in the most literal sense, they will all join Wiggin on the bridge during what he’s told is his final test—a simulated assault on the Formic home planet. But though the adults have correctly assessed the boy’s military capabilities, it turns out that they don’t understand the extent of his humanity.

No effort has been spared to give the movie a gleaming futuristic look; in the happily non-3D cinematography of Donald M. McAlpine, the interiors of the Battle School, particularly the huge chamber in which teams of cadets face off against one another under zero-gravity conditions, are elaborate, if sterile, constructions. (The production designers are Sean Haworth and Ben Procter, and the supervising art director A, Todd Holland.) The sequences that dramatize Ender’s dreams, driven by a mind game he plays on a tablet device, as well as the flashbacks to the Formic invasion and the culminating assault the boy leads against the aliens, also have a degree of grandeur, though they never transcend their CGI origin to feel fully realistic. Moreover, they’re not helped by Steve Jablonsky’s score, the bass rumblings in which—at least in the Imax format—might make you think an earthquake in underway.

The chilliness of the movie’s visuals is matched by Butterfield’s performance, in which the still-scrawny (though now taller) star of “Hugo” exudes an almost perpetual air of cool impassivity even under the most threatening conditions. The other characters are more demonstrative, especially Ford’s anxious Graff and Davis’ even more concerned Anderson. And while Arias comes off awfully strong as Ender’s chief tormentor, the other young actors acquit themselves as well as their stock roles allow. As for Kingsley, he struts about with the ramrod posture of the ultimate military man—none of the goofiness of his turn in “Iron Man 3” here—and lets his full-face tattoo do most of the acting for him.

In the end “Ender’s Game” comes across as a striking-looking film that never achieves the epic quality the makers are evidently straining for. Instead it’s a futuristic parable about a bullied young boy’s inherent wisdom in a world dominated by adult fear and manipulation that comes across, at least in this adaptation, as oddly constricted and curiously dispassionate. (The morality of creating an army of child soldiers, for example, barely gets a passing mention.) Still, the book has its share of admirers, and they will certainly enjoy seeing it transplanted to the screen. Others are likely to wonder what all the fuss is about.