Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth

AFTER EARTH: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, directed by M. Night Shyamalan (100 min.)

This has to be the end for him, right?

Surely, we can’t get another one, can we?

I hereby declare After Earth the final nail in M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial coffin. If I am wrong, and he returns, we all lose. It really is a shame seeing the deterioration of the man as a writer maybe even more so than a director. The Sixth Sense was an awe-inspiring debut, and fanboys across the landscape site his follow up, Unbreakable, as his best film (include me in that opinion). Even though Signs was a smash hit, things began wobbling. Then came the trifecta of The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, each worse than the previous, followed by the disastrous adaptation of The Last Airbender. And that is where we find After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest step in his long and painful death march. Here is the very definition of laziness in storytelling.

In the future, earth has become uninhabitable because of the human race’s general destructive nature. A mass exodus sends the surviving humans to another planet somewhere else that is never really geographically explained. It’s just somewhere. But wouldn’t you know it, this new planet humans are sent to is occupied by evil aliens who, because they are blind, smell the pheromones we release when we are afraid to hunt us and mow us down mercilessly. Call me crazy, but a reconnaissance mission to the planet I am about to move the human race to would be vital.

But wait; there is a savior among the humans. It is Cypher Raige (Will Smith), who has mastered the ability to completely ignore fear as an emotion and “ghost” on the aliens to kill them without them ever sniffing him. Cypher’s ability to mask his fear has also turned him into a boring and rather robotic presence on the screen. His son is Kitai (Smith’s real-life son Jaden), a smart kid with a supreme desire to gain his father’s approval; Kitai’s fear holds him back from becoming a “Ranger” (of what I don’t know. Who knows what the military branch is in charge or what the organizational structure might be, that’s been carelessly removed in the editing room). Something tells me along the way Kitai will have to face his fears. Cypher also seems to blame young Kitai for the death of his older sister in an alien attack when Kitai was maybe ten years old. So dad is mad at son for not stopping an alien monster the size of a kitchen from attacking his older sister when he was ten? And the nonsense piles up…

Cypher has to leave his family once again and take one of the alien beings back to… somewhere. Why are we transporting him? Beats me. It apparently stifled Shyamalan as he was laboring through the script because he never explains anything he needs to explain in the screenplay. Instead, he lays out all the obvious plot points with cheap technological explanations or flat dialogue or disgustingly cheap emotional manipulations. Anyways, Kitai tags along with his dad on this rather routine mission which goes south quickly once an asteroid storm damages the ship and forces them to crash land on Earth, the most dangerous planet for humans in this corny universe. Oddly enough, a crew of twenty or so soldiers is all killed instantly leaving on Cypher and his teenage son the only ones left alive. Convenient. But wait, Cypher’s legs are broken and they must get to the tail of the ship that’s about 100 kilometers away for some arbitrary plot-driven reason. This means Kitai must rough the wild and get to the tail before they both die.

So here is the dangerous planet earth with wild beasts and dangerous toxic air, but it really could have been any planet. There are no philosophical or theological undertones to any of the proceedings and there is no real reference to earth other than Cypher telling Kitai ominously, “this… is Earth.” The film dissolves into a “nick of time” thriller, where things happen just at the right moment so the character avoids danger, no matter how cheap the out may be. Kitai finds danger, and squeaks away right at the end, over and over. And these issues he runs into are so contrived the entire thing feels like an obstacle course being watched by Ed Harris’ character from The Truman Show. There are moments with some of the creatures on earth that try and pull emotion from the audience, but they are so insulting it works conversely. And then, near the end, communication is severed between Kitai and Cypher back at the ship so Cypher stares at his son on a convenient video camera and wills him to move in the right direction? Is that what I am supposed to think? I guess, unless these two have developed supernatural powers somewhere along the way.

I could go on and on about the ridiculous developments and flawed logic in After Earth, and maybe I will one day. But that might require a second viewing and I don’t think I could stomach the 100 minutes again. I wonder if this film was severely edited by studio execs who saw what they had and panicked to at least make it short to increase play times and box office. Had this been some epic film over two hours it may have helped, but I seriously doubt it. The problem is not in the length, but in the laziness of absolutely everything outside of Jaden Smith’s performance. That, however, is a band aid on a severed head, the now severed head of M. Night Shyamalan’s career.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Hangover Part III

THE HANGOVER PART III: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Ken Jeong, John Goodman, directed by Todd Phillips (100 min.)

Perhaps the largest and loudest complaint aboutThe Hangover Part II was that it was a carbon copy of the original instant classic, only it wasn't funny and was generally a mess from top to bottom.  That left little hope for the third installment, but director Todd Phillips must have had some sort of strange, offbeat epiphany on the way to shooting The Hangover Part III.  The audience wanted something different, and I can't imagine anything more off the beaten path of the first two Hangover films.  Some may say it isn't funny, but I don't even think it tries to be funny.  Rather than try and do a third straight comedy with these characters, Phillips appears to be trying to change genres almost completely.  There is something edgy, thrilling, even soulful about The Hangover Part III, as unusual as that sounds.  But this is an unusual film.

The quartet of friends are back.  Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper are back as Stu and Phil, the pair of straight men to the increasingly deranged and unstable Alan, played again by Zach Galifianiakis.  Alan is so out in left field he is barely in the park these days, and having not one but two straight men to his routine feels necessary to keep at least some of the film anchored in reality.  And of course there is Doug (Justin Bartha), here for the sole purpose of plot once again.  As the film opens Alan gets into trouble with a giraffe he just bought, sending his father (Jeffrey Tambour) into a fit and an eventual heart attack that kills him on the spot.  At the funeral, Stu and Phil and Doug all agree to be part of an intervention with Alan, who has been off his meds for a while and appears to be slowly going insane.

The intervention sends the four friends down to Arizona where the rehab center is located, but along the way they are wrecked and accosted by Marshall, a sleazy, wealthy crook played by John Goodman.  It seems Marshall was swindled out of $21 million in gold bars by Mr. Chow, played once again and thankfully with a little reserve by Ken Jeong.  And who better than "The Wolfpack" to find out where he is?  It seems one of the group has been in touch with Chow over the years, I'll let you guess which one.

Marshall takes Doug hostage and the ransom is Chow and the whereabouts of the gold bars.  This sends the trio back into action to try and track down Chow and bring him back.  Normally, this is where certain hijinks and comedy mishaps would pile on top of one another until we meet a rousing conclusion.  Only this film doesn't take the easy comedy route.  It never had that intention; this film becomes an action thriller in a sense.  The comedy is left up to Alan, and as he is honestly the only one delivering the laughs it changes the entire dynamic of the film and of the characters.  It singles out Alan and subsequently points out his clear mental illness.  Even Alan has a few touching moments, including a scene with Carlos the baby from the original film, now four years old.  This scene and a handful of other scenes caught me off guard.

If you wanted something different with this third Hangover film, I can't imagine anything more in the other direction.  Todd Phillips is doing something very risky and extremely unusual here, shifting genres from a comedy to some hybrid of drama, thriller, action, and a little humor.  I smelled something fishy early on, as the four friends are kidnapped in a scene that was not funny in the least, and as the story unfolded I found myself engaged in the action and not caring about whether or not the laughs were coming.  Galifianakis has some hefty lines once again, but the heart of this picture is much darker, much more concerned with actual suspense, and for some odd reason the experiment works for me.  Calling this a comedy might be ignoring what Todd Phillips is trying to accomplish.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, directed by J.J. Abrams (132 min.)

I don't fashion myself as a Trekkie.  I have no deep-seeded knowledge of the Star Trek pantheon, I have nowhere near an intricate working knowledge of the U.S.S. Enterprise or it's shipmates beyond what I have gathered through - for lack of a better term - "uninvolved" viewing.  I cannot speak Klingon.  So maybe there are things in these new films I enjoy that purists and fanboys will reject wholeheartedly.  There could be great disservices to these legendary characters going on right before my eyes.  That being said, I am familiar with all of the important players, I have seen the original films over the years, and I do enjoy the canon and what it represents to pop culture.  And I also know great entertainment when I see it, and that is what is on display with Star Trek Into Darkness; at least, through the eyes of a casual fan.

Star Trek Into Darkness is dark and lean and action packed, sprinkled with just enough pathos and wit and emotion to make the picture a quintessential summer adventure.  The whole team from the 2009 reboot is back and comfortable in their roles, with their youth helping to serve the action of the story.  Chris Pine is on target as Captain James T. Kirk, a wiry young hotshot who bucks authority whenever he sees the chance.  There is Mr. Spock, given great depth once again by Zachary Quinto, and there is his girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who makes up the most central trio of the crew which includes Bones, Scotty, and Sulu to name a few.  As we open on the crew we see Kirk exposing the Enterprise to a fascinating indigenous tribe in order to save Spock, getting him in trouble with his commander, Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and having his ship taken out from under him.  Of course, this will not last long.

A new threat in the form of a mysterious Starfleet officer throws the crew and Kirk back into action.  This new threat is the infamous Khan, played this time around by Benedict Cumberbatch in a role made legendary by Ricardo Mantalban.  There is no fake chest or Mad Max gear this time around; this Khan is single-minded and threatening in his words as he attacks Starfleet and flees to a Klingon planet to hide out.  Khan's attacks set the gears of the plot into motion, a plot which up to this point had been a little too basic and a little too obvious.  Thankfully, they get these plot points out of the way quickly and push us into a story involving revenge and adventure.

The story itself, as I mentioned, is paint-by-numbers in the early scenes where the action is telegraphed by too much telling and not enough showing.  But these characters are so fully realized and have such wonderful chemistry that the weakness of the first act is overshadowed by banter and wit.  It was refreshing to see the great Peter Weller back on the big screen as Starfleet's big shot, Marcus.  I enjoy Pine's new incarnation of Shatner's invention, a bit more angry and a bit less lounge singer in my opinion.  And Quinto's Spock is more involved in the action from top to bottom.  There is plenty of organic comic relief from the likes of Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Bones (Karl Urban), and due to the relentless thrills the rest of the crew is so locked into their jobs on board they are merely window dressing.  I realize the original films were light on true, raw action, and The Next Generation even lighter, and these new films deal less in the Trekkie currency of sociological examination, but I would take the trade in the form of such a high-space adventure.

There are also a few nice little inclusions along the way to make Trekkies smile (unless they were frowning already by that point), and a nice hint at what the third film may bring as far as villainy is concerned.  And the third act is a slippery slope; a development happens which echoes one of the more popular earlier films, but the difference is significant and perhaps the story lets the audience off the hook in the end.  I know that sounds cryptic, and for good reason.  I don't expect anyone going to see Star Trek Into Darkness with fake Vulcan ears and crew shirts to be decidedly pleased with everything in the picture.  I wasn't particularly overwhelmed by the early portions of the script and the ending might be just a tad bit too neat.  But if there ever was a film to overcome its shortcomings with fun, thrills, and rousing spectacle, this newest Enterprise adventure does the job.


Sunday, May 12, 2013


THE GREAT GATSBY: Leonardo Dicaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, directed by Baz Luhrmann (143 min.)

It is almost an impossible task, adapting the most celebrated American novel of the 20th century without losing some of the magic. Baz Luhrmann’s plan, then, was to add enough verve and energy and opulence into his adaptation of The Great Gatsby with the hope that this decadence might mask any shortcomings. Not that the shortcomings are glaring – all of the themes and ideas of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece are in place and effective – but the extravagance of Luhrmann feels like overcompensation. At least early on. Once we are given a moment to breathe the film settles in, we are allowed to indulge in the performances more than the fireworks. And yet, style remains, and keeps the proceedings at an arm’s length.

Tobey Maguire stars as our narrator, Nick Carraway, the dreamer with stars in his eyes and a great admiration for the wealth and luxury of the upper crust of New York. He leaves Yale, gets a job working in the booming stock market of 1922 and moves into a cottage amidst towering mansions in West Egg, the cove of “new money” opposed by the familial wealth of East Egg. Across the water in East Egg is Nick’s cousin, Daisy (the lovely Carey Mulligan) and her scoundrel of a sporting, philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). But what is more curious to Nick is his own next-door neighbor, Gatsby, a mysterious man who everyone knows but practically no one has ever seen.

Gatsby’s home is a castle where each and every weekend parties are held that would make even the most flamboyant party animal blush. There are endless strands of confetti, big bands, dancers, fireworks, and just about everything one could imagine that made the 20s so rip roaring. Everything, that is, except Gatsby it seems, whose legend outweighs his reality. When Gatsby decides to make himself known to Nick in the middle of a weekend party, he is polite and young and played to perfection by Leonardo Dicaprio with bronze skin and locks of hair seemingly dipped in gold.

Gatsby remains a mystery for the majority of the film, and in the hopes that most of us at least know of the novel I will skip over the basic plot developments. Of course, Luhrmann’s screenplay ( co-written with Craig Pearce) expand of Fitzgerald’s sparely-written novel, but the basic structure is still intact. There is the blinking green light outside Daisy’s home, a symbol of longing for Gatsby who loves Daisy madly. There is the all-seeing eyes of the dilapidated billboard in the Valley of Ashes. There is the stark contrast of wealth between West and East Egg, and there is the underlying theme of false American wealth and success built on falsehoods. That Fitzgerald was able to see the hollowness of American capitalism before the crash in 1929 is fascinating in its own right, and having this adaptation in 2013 somehow feels as relevant now as it was in the early 1920s.

But this Great Gatsby is all about style, and Luhrmann’s dizzying array of visual excess that is almost too much to take in early on. The costumes and set designs and energy is undeniable and the colors and beauty of the picture is succinct, but delivered feverishly and relentlessly in the first act. I see the design here and the method behind Luhrmann’s madness, but the stamina of these early scenes cannot sustain. And once the film settles into its story this grow long and tiresome for long spells of time. What keeps the picture afloat through its bloated runtime are the performances from Dicaprio, who is dedicated to this role, Mulligan, whose eyes of sadness contrast her cherub face in a wonderfully enchanting way, and Joel Edgerton who steals the show in his scenes as the gruff Tom Buchanan. Maguire is almost forgotten by the time we reach the third act.

The Great Gatsby will divide viewers between those who enjoy Luhrmann’s style and those who find it distracting and too much to handle. I enjoy what Luhrmann tries with the novel’s most basic themes and elements, and his style does not ultimately ruin anything. It is the unevenness that holds the film back, and even though the performances try their best to save the day.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3

IRON MAN 3: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle, Ben Kingsley, directed by Shane Black (135 min.)

After a lackluster first sequel to his boffo superhero debut, director Jon Favreau stepped aside this time for Iron Man 3 and allowed another talented writer/director, Shane Black, take the reins.  Black, the writer of the first two Lethal Weapon films as well as the clever noir comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, breathes new life into the Iron Man franchise while keeping the coveted Marvel Universe in tact.  Favreau is back in his role as Tony Stark's bodyguard, and everyone else returns in their supporting roles alongside Robert Downey, Jr., but Black's energy is all over the screen.  Despite some clunky plot developments and vagueness along the way, Iron Man 3 revives the hero from the doldrums of Iron Man 2.

Downey is back and in top form as Tony Stark, the egomaniac behind the iron mask.  We pick up where The Avengers left off, with Stark still haunted by what he saw and experienced in New York in the Avengers finale.  Troubled by the fact he may only be master of the world and not, in fact, the universe, Tony toils away in his swanky garage in Malibu, building one prototype suit after another and rarely stopping to sleep.  Now in a full-fledged relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, back and given even more to do this time around), Stark works feverishly to tinker with his product but whenever there is a threat to go into action he finds himself in an ego-crushing panic attack.  Meanwhile his partner and friend, James Rhodes, has turned War Machine into a device for the American government and changed his name to the Iron Patriot.  Stark scoffs at the corny name with his usual wit, which is fired up to a gleeful eleven this time around.

A threat arises in the form of The Mandarin, an Osama Bin Laden ripoff played with great menace and a gruff voice by Sir Ben Kingsley, decorated in lavishly Middle-Eastern attire.  The Mandarin has been setting off some bombs at United States landmarks (attacks which hit a little close to home these days) only his bombs are not, of course, your typical explosive devices.  Meanwhile, a dual threat reappears from Tony's past.  He is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), one of those scientific geniuses who has created a weaponized chemical regrowth - thing - that is infused into human bodies and makes them basically orange embers of death.  The whole technology is glossed over and a little vague but never mind all that, this technology makes Killian's henchmen some seriously threatening baddies.  This new threat hits close to Stark's family and friends and calls him into action in order to get revenge.

The revenge angle is important when you consider the Marvel Universe; this makes the story personal to Tony's plight, so you never sit and wonder where all of his super friends are to help him.  There are a great number of plot developments, including an awkward diversion to Tennessee that is still good for some solid action and hearty laughs, but once the story gets re-focused the larger action set pieces beat anything from either of the previous two entries.  There is an aerial rescue of civilians that is the most thrilling moment in the franchise, and the final showdown on an oil rig where those prototype Iron Men come into play that is a solid climactic battle.  There is also a clever twist along the way that adds some comedy and changes the complexion of the story, evidence of Shane Black's writing influence.  The Christmas setting is also a Shane Black staple.

As I said before, Pepper gets more screen time and even gets to kick a little ass along the way, and the holdover supporting players all fill their jobs well.  Kingsley is a delight as The Mandarin, and Pearce is having fun as Killian, oozing a snake-like villainy with blonde hair and tailored suits.  But of course this is Downey's picture, and after taking a back seat in Iron Man 2 here he is owning the screen.  He and Black have a nice working relationship that shows off in the dialogue and the wit Downey delivers.  For whatever small missteps Iron Man 3 might find along the way, the story isn't overloaded with unnecessary characters and scenes in order to hit some grand notes.  It is lean and mean and a lot of fun.