Tuesday, October 29, 2013

After Earth

Will Smith can't help but exude charisma when he's on screen. He's been one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood since Independence Day, but lately has shied away from the spotlight it seems. About a year and a half ago when I started hearing rumors of a film called After Earth that would star Will Smith and his son Jaden, I have to admit that I was a little excited about it. I pictured something with the emotional impact of The Pursuit of Happyness but with the special effects and post-apocolyptic flare of I Am Legend. The only thing that seemed like a wild card was the choice of director - M. Night Shyamalan. When the trailers looked fairly promising, I was pretty certain I'd be seeing it in theatres. The one thing that held me back happened on the day of its release... when the reviews for After Earth dashed my hopes entirely (it currently holds an 11% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). After that, I had little desire to see this film and chalked its disappointing reception up to Shyamalan's steep descent into obscurity ever since he burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Finally, when the opportunity came to see this movie for free (and when no other demands for my time were present) I resigned myself to sitting through this movie as I folded laundry.

General Cypher Raige is a legendary warrior who has mastered the art of "Ghosting" (masking his emotions from a terrifying species of blind alien creatures known as Ursas who can smell the pheromones produced by fear and thus track their prey). Leading the human race to a new settlement following an environmental catastrophe that makes Earth uninhabitable, he begins to train rangers with this skill so as to overcome their monstrous enemies should they ever return to Nova Prime. Cypher's son, Kitai, wishes to become a ranger and trains incessantly to emerge from his father's shadow. After failing to achieve the rank of Ranger yet again, Kitai is taken along on Cypher's final mission in space before retirement. However when unanticipated gravitron signals (yep, you read that right) announce an asteroid collision, the ship is thrown off course and crash lands on a nearby planet deemed "quarantined". As the father and son pair are the only survivors, and both of Cypher's legs have been broken during the crash, the inexperienced Kitai must brave the dangers of a post-human Earth in order to retrieve the homing beacon from the other half of the ship... all while avoiding the Ursa that escaped from imprisonment following the crash...

Even after seeing this movie, I can see where some people might have thought this was a good idea. Sure, the plot is needlessly complicated and the scenario is rather contrived, but the back story could actually be an interesting film in the right hands. Obviously, given my star rating above, this is not the film I was hoping for. What I am surprised to say, however, is that it wasn't entirely Shyamalan's fault as I had previously surmised (though he isn't entirely blameless). For starters, Will Smith plays an emotionless, up-tight military leader who won't crack a smile to save his life. In other words, he's not allowed to be Will Smith. Not only is he somehow transformed into a boring person to watch on screen, but his character is literally relegated to sitting in a cockpit giving orders over a headset. You don't hire Will Smith to "star" in your movie and not let him do what he's famous for.

That is the least of my complaints, however, as every other actor in this movie leaves no impression whatsoever. But even that would be bearable if the lead in this film weren't so utterly terrible. Jaden Smith did a credible job in the decent remake of Karate Kid, but he is far and way the worst thing about After Earth. His line readings are laughable, his facial expressions and body movements almost like a glichy android pretending to be human, and every time he tries to sell emotion it comes off as a whiny five year old crying for ice cream. I can't imagine how awkward this must have been for Shyamalan, who was clearly stuck with this blatant bit of nepotism (as Will Smith was a producer on the film). It almost seemed like his camera movements were trying to disguise Jaden's terrible acting, though it could have just been the cinematographer cringing at his pathetic performance.

The special effects are fairly well done, however, and with a serious re-writing of the screenplay and completely recasting the entire film, it could be an interesting sci-fi concept that might actually be enjoyable. It's frustrating sometimes when millions of dollars are invested in a story that an audience member feels they could have written better in an afternoon. After Earth is a wasted opportunity and something that I wouldn't recommend to anyone (except as an exercise in script doctoring). The only reason I'm giving this film two stars is for the intriguing concept and the decent visual effects. Don't bother with this one.

AFTER EARTH is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images

Monsters University

As I mentioned during my Brave review, I consider myself to be a pretty big fan of Pixar animated films. Truthfully I wasn't that taken with Cars 2, but I found Brave to be a welcome return to originality and heartfelt storytelling for the studio. Based on that upward trajectory coming off of Brave, I actually had fairly high expectations for Pixar's latest work, Monsters University. Having said that, I passed up multiple opportunities to see this film in theatres, which is something I rarely do with Pixar films. Perhaps deep down I expected a drop in quality, or maybe the return to Monstropolis was less inviting this time around, but it took almost four months beyond its release date until I finally sat down to watch this movie.

Mike Wazowski is a bright-eyed monster on his way to college with hopes of being an all-time great scarer. He takes his studies seriously and just as he's adjusting to college life with confidence in his future in the scare program, a rival in the form of James P. Sullivan steps into the picture. Massive and coming from a line of scare legends, "Sully" doesn't feel the need to study scare tactics or practice techniques. However this blatant negligence for homework comes back to haunt Sully as he struggles during his final exam of Scaring 101. Following a public display of mutual annoyance by Mike and Sully, Dean Hardscrabble drops both monsters from the scare program. But with the upcoming scare games comes a chance at redemption as Mike and Sully reluctantly join forces with the Oozma Kappas, a scare group denied entry to the games for lack of participants. The two rivals must learn humility and patience as they work together to fight their way back into the program.

Some of the teaser trailers for this film have been pretty entertaining, though most of the content that was presented never comes to fruition in the actual film. One of the great things about Pixar is their knack for weaving humor that adults and kids can enjoy. Given the college setting, one might think that the humor portrayed should appeal to college aged students as well as children, but the former half of that demographic is greatly under-served by the content of this film. Rather than ironic wordplay or hilarious scenarios (as is featured in Monsters Inc.), the film settles for juvenile sight gags and nudge-you-in-the-ribs joke telling. Some of the humor still works, but the majority is greatly disappointing compared to its predecessor.

The film also seems to lack direction, without a clear premise to guide it like the original film had. Monsters going to a university to learn how to scare can only take you so far before it runs out of steam. This seems to be the problem with forcing sequels to brilliantly conceived originals that felt completely unique and self-contained. It seems like the concept for a sequel came to writers relatively quickly, but then inspiration for where the story would go didn't seem to follow. The final result is a meandering attempt to recapture the magic of Monsters Inc. that works far less the older you are.

By the time the movie got into its final act, however, I was finding myself slightly more engaged in Mike and Sully's plight, routing for them to win the scare games and create the friendship we all know from the original. That all does come to fruition, but it takes far too long with forced moments of humor feeding desperate throwbacks to engender your good will for a film that doesn't really deserve it on its own merits.

Ultimately, it's a better movie than The Croods, but not quite as good as Despicable Me 2. The animation was as good as it needed to be, the voice performances were adequate, but the story and humor were the big sticking points for me. This along with Cars 2 make me unexcited for Pixar sequels (even the upcoming Finding Dori), as the studio seems to work best when breaking new ground. I give this movie a mild recommend for kids under the age of eight, but cannot recommend it to anyone else. This was a slight disappointment for me and I have to give it two and a half stars.


Saturday, October 12, 2013


Yes, it's been over two months since my last review, though that wasn't exactly by choice. If there had been some good movies to review (and if I wasn't so busy with school) I probably would have reviewed another film well before now. This particular project has always been on my radar and I knew I was going to find time to cover it upon its release. I've followed the production of Gravity since before casting was finalized, back when Robert Downey Jr. was set to star in the role that eventually fell to George Clooney. I knew Alfonso Cuaron's work (yes, primarily from the third Harry Potter film) and I had a feeling this film would be something special. However, after hearing rumors of production delays I was beginning to worry that the film might not pan out, or at least might fall short of its potential... well, rest assured that all of my doubts were quelled within the first ten seconds.

Gravity is a film primarily set in space, with a small group of astronauts working on the Hubble telescope orbiting Earth. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) doesn't have much experience being out in space, though she admits to her uber-confident companion, Matt Kowalski (Clooney), that she actually enjoys the silence. Everything appears to be going smoothly until Houston warns the astronauts of oncoming space debris caused by a destroyed Russian satellite. With orders to abort the mission, Kowlaski and Dr. Stone scramble to put away their equipment and return to the shuttle as shrapnel begins to tear the vessel apart. Still attached to an arm of the shuttle, Dr. Stone is hurled into space, tumbling uncontrollably and crying out in vain for rescue.

I'm a bit late to the game with my review of Gravity, but hopefully I can still find something to say about it that hasn't already become a cliche. The intensely dramatic opening to this movie (all contained in one stunning 12-minute uninterrupted sequence) instantly clutches the viewer and never relents until the closing credits. This film's unique setting and tone would be original enough to garner praise from me even if the tension and the emotion weren't perfected in the way they are in this movie. Alfonso Cuaron does a masterful job of balancing all aspects of this production, never letting the spectacular visuals overshadow or undermine the peril of outer space. There's a terrific juxtaposition between silence and destruction such as the chaos of a space shuttle being torn apart being accompanied by only the hyperventilating of the powerless astronauts.

This is one of the most thrilling films I've seen in a really long time, but it's also an incredibly emotional and moving story of a woman struggling to survive while questioning whether she even wants to. It's so impressive that both of these things can exist in the same movie, though it strangely mirrors the seeming contradiction of the expansiveness and yet claustrophobic environment the story is set. While the direction is spot-on, the performance of Sandra Bullock (who deserves serious Oscar consideration) and the powerful score are what really make those moments unforgettable.

At the risk of going into spoilers, I'll cut myself off at this point. Suffice it to say that Gravity is one of the most enveloping movie-going experiences I've ever had. It's terrifying, moving, and exhilarating at different times in the film while seamlessly transitioning from one emotion to the next. It's a movie that has to be seen on a big screen and (I can't believe I'm actually saying this) in 3D to fully appreciate the majesty of the visuals. This movie is daring and revolutionary, and I'll go ahead and say it's possibly the best movie of the year. If you couldn't tell, I definitely recommend Gravity and I give it a full four stars.

GRAVITY is rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language


In anticipation of Gravity's release (and because I've been meaning to see it for a while now) I decided to watch and review 2009's Moon. This is one of the rare times when a movie completely escaped my notice until it was already a couple of years past its theatrical release. Directed by Duncan Jones (who later directed the terrific Source Code in 2011), Moon actually first became known to me by listening to Pandora. I'm a big fan of film scores and several songs from this soundtrack kept playing on some of my composer channels. After listening to those songs, I decided to buy the entire album. It's been on fairly heavy rotation on my iPod ever since, and I feel my viewing of this film has a similar story. Though I was initially held up by the R-rating of this film, I decided (as it was merely for language) that I could handle the content and proceeded anyway.

Moon tells the story of Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), an engineer on the lunar space station in charge of harvesting a mineral on the Moon's surface that is an incredibly efficient energy source. Contracted for a three year mission, Sam struggles with the communication malfunctions the station routinely encounters and longs for the remaining two weeks of his contract to go swiftly. He has left his wife and newborn daughter on earth and the extended isolation, apart from a robotic assistant named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), has caused Sam to hallucinate. One day on his rounds to repair the equipment, a vision of a young woman sends his lunar vehicle crashing into the harvesting equipment. He wakes up some time later in the infirmary without a single wound or memory from the accident. Though Sam wishes to explore the moon surface to see how he ended up in the infirmary, GERTY says it is temporarily out of bounds. He finds a way around that and drives a second vehicle up to the crash site... only to find another astronaut in the wreckage. Sam brings the man back to base and is shocked to see that the stranger looks identical to him...

As I have listened to the score quite frequently before even seeing the film, the song titles gave a way a few things about the plot (though I could have surmised as much just by watching the trailer). This is a fairly complex narrative, and the plot twists, while interesting, are not the most compelling thing about this independent sci-fi thriller. Sam Rockwell (from Iron Man 2) does a tremendous job portraying more than one character, and at times you even forget that it is the same person. His struggle to uncover the mystery surrounding the lunar base with the other Sam Bell is fascinating to watch as he bickers back and forth with himself. But even that pales in comparison to the emotional story of Sam's separation from his family.

The visuals for this movie are fairly well done (given the limited budget and means of the production), and the space station is exceptionally constructed. These aren't the reasons to see this movie, but it helps the viewer believe in the heightened reality of this universe. As you can probably guess, the thing that puts this movie over the edge is the score. It's a beautiful, haunting piece that I highly recommend to any fan of film music. Just listen to the heart-breaking "Memories" on iTunes if you don't believe me.

I wish I could talk about this movie in more depth, but I don't want to ruin the experience for anybody that hasn't seen it yet. This is a terrifically-written story and inspired many sci-fi films to come (ahem, Oblivion). Though the language does get a little harsh at times and the ending may be construed as slightly underwhelming (despite the last-second intrigue captured in voice-over), I highly recommend this movie to any fans of the science fiction genre. I give this film a very strong three and a half stars.

MOON is rated R for language