Review: After Earth

bluray after earthAfter Earth is a Will Smith and Son project directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  Smith is credited for the story and the M. Night Screenplay was co-written by video game and Book of Eli writer Gary Whitta.  The movie would work much better as a game actually, as the set-ups and stages lend themselves to more potential action a player can create then what actually occurs on screen.  The resulting movie seems like a bad adaptation of a game that never even actually existed.

The look of this futuristic sci-fi tale is not bad.  The fanciful architecture of the canyon dwellings notwithstanding, the more practical materials and designs present styles and textures that befit a proper narrative.  Beyond that, there is less to enjoy or respect.  The narrative is slow and empty.  Will Smith’s story had great potential, as I said it would probably be a really fun video game and it could have been a thrilling movie.  The story of a father and son crash landing on a hostile planet, both of their fates resting on the son’s ability to cross the alien terrain and retrieve a beacon from a lost portion of the ship, is very enticing.  But it misses the mark with lackluster performances and noncommittal challenges for the hero on his quest.

Without properly fleshing out the skeleton of a story, yet presenting it as an exceedingly long feature, it unravels slowly and becomes tedious in no time.  Conflicts arise predictably and are quickly delt with, abandoning the promise of thrill or adventure. The strained relationship between the characters never gets pushed to the point of real drama so the turning point comes suddenly and subsides leaving all the scenes around it wanting for more of anything relatable, threatening, endearing, or otherwise.

Without the spark of passion or inspiration from the actors or director, it is like watching grown men anguish over completing a child’s connect-the-dots puzzle.  The choices decided on in the process, such as miraculous occurances that save the hero in times of despair, are questionable, but really don’t matter, because the movie is a bore, regardless of how, or why.

I’m a big fan of Unbreakable and I have been a supporter of M. Night up until The Last Airbender.  I even liked The Lady in the Water.  I felt that movie delivered exactly what it promised.  I never expected him to make another The Sixth Sense and have enjoyed the bulk of his work.  I was hoping this movie would serve as a sort of comeback or show somehow that he had once again found his way.  But the movie is a disappointment that casts doubt in even my mind as to whether, or not Shyamalan can ever again deliver a substantial movie.

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Movie Review: The World’s End

“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! … And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time… We are gonna have a party.” -Heavenly Blues (Wild Angels 1966)

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I have not wanted to commit my thoughts about The Worlds End into review form, because I don’t want to resign myself to the disappointment that still haunts me when my thoughts turn to the film.  I saw it at the triple feature we had in town and it was a great night.  Even though it was the end of a marathon, past my bedtime, and my expectations were justifiably high, the movie was put together very nicely and managed to make me laugh quite a bit.  The action scenes had a lot of cuts, which I know bothers some people, but I thought they came together well and I really enjoyed watching Nick Frost fight.

For the most part, you could say the film is a success.  Forgiving some minor indulgences, by director Edgar Wright, such as his trademark piss poor toilet aim shot and fence jumping shenanigans (which amount to more of a running joke connecting the Cornetto films than the ice cream actually does), the film was put together very nicely and boasts fine actors with splendid performances.  It looks good, has some great ideas and is genuinely funny, but I felt disappointed when the end credits began to roll and I never shook the feeling.  In fact, as the dust settled, I’ve had to acknowledge that I just didn’t like it.

Firstly, you should not expect to see a group of old chums reminiscing about old times over a few too many pints on the brink of a robot invasion.  That was what the trailer sold me on and what I thought would make a great new effort from the trio behind Shaun of the Dead and the even more triumphant Hot Fuzz.  The film is senselessly dark at heart which becomes a wet blanket in a comedy that already has the added pressure of  an invasion movie twist.  Simon Pegg plays Gary King a recovering (not so much) alcoholic whose life may as well have ended twenty years ago on the one night he remembers as the ultimate experience, a pub crawl left unfinished, but with the promise that life would never be this good.  His friends have not only moved on, they have lost touch and want nothing to do with him.  He only convinces them to once again attempt the “golden mile” by telling them Andy Knightly (Nick Frost) the most slighted of Gary’s school chums has agreed to go, then convincing Andy  by lying about the death of his mother.

Right away you see Gary is in a bad place.  He is sort of pitiful, but moderately entertaining.  As the story wears on his despair becomes clearer, but no possible cause comes up.  They never bother to explore the source of the problem to find means to a resolution.  Rather, they defiantly and joyfully exploit his desperation in a misguided effort to make a statement that is ultimately empty and definitely unsatisfying.

As the reluctant reunion gets underway King is already screwing over his mates.  A cop pulls them over for speeding and they find out King still has the registration under his friend Peter’s name.  The first bar is not as it has been preserved in Kings perfect memory of that fateful night twenty years ago.  The second, oddly is just like the first.  It isn’t long before it is discovered that some of the towns inhabitants are not human and after a violent encounter with some robots, they determine that the best thing to do is carry on with the crawl as though nothing is wrong, an exercise which proves futile.

the statement of the film is somewhat lost in the verbose, not so witty ramblings uttered by King, that could have used another revision, or a cursory glance by Vince Vaughn.  It just felt forced, but that wasn’t the ultimate turn off.  SPOILERS– two things really bothered me about the film:

It ends with a face off between King and the leader of the robot race at The World’s End.  It turns out, it isn’t just the town under attack but the whole world has been gradually assimilating to this “advanced” culture over the last twenty years.  The world takeover is suddenly reversed due to the belligerent rantings of Gary King.  The above quote from Wild Angels is King’s credo and ultimately, it is the speech that sends the aliens packing, uprooting the “Network” and returning Earth to the dark ages.  Far from any catharsis, or healing, or even an intelligent twist that reveals the sanity behind Kings rebellion, the film turns away from more interesting avenues with lots of potential, for a more streamlined action movie with muted purpose.

And what becomes of Gary King after he Stonewalls the “Network” and causes them to disembark after twenty years of taking over?  He roams the land with a band of robot versions of his friends at the age of twenty, picking sword fights with humans that discriminate against them.  Why has he suddenly sided with the enemy?  Why is he looking for a fight?  What is he fighting for?

For all of the great ideas and possibilities that went into The World’s End, the whole point appears to be that it is better to be a hopeless asshole at liberty to be a hopeless asshole than to be governed by something greater.  Granted, the governing force was dark and dangerous in itself, but there is no synthesis, no epiphany, for all of it’s preaching, the film offers no suitable alternative.  Gary King remains as lost as anyone’s interest in him.

2012’s Biggest Let Downs

The 2013 Academy Awards was fun and there was much to celebrate. But 2012 also delivered some great disappointments that should have been mega hits. All of these movies were disappointing, but some had farther to fall. I’ll start with the least disappointing:

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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Why it should have been great:

The floodgates have opened and comics are taking form on the big screen in exciting ways that were never before possible.  They have gained enormous traction in mainstream appeal and reboots have become commonplace enough that a new take on a familiar favorite can be seen just a few years after the last one.  No comic book franchise needed a fresh vision quite as badly as the underwhelming Ghost Rider.  The sequel, Spirit of Vengeance was Sony’s chance to get it right, especially after they fought so hard to retain the rights to the property.

What went wrong:

The script was rushed to meet Sony’s deadline and the movie didn’t have much going on beneath the special effects.  The lack of inspiration and daring lead to a run of the mill, action flick with a dull climax and a hokey twist of redemption for the tragic hero.

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Total Recall

Why it should have been Great:

Two 80’s classics from the mind of cult sci-fi mastermind Philip K. Dick appeared to have converged when the Schwartzenegger vehicle Total Recall was given a 21st century face lift with a  Blade Runner inspired set design.

What went wrong:

Everything.  The movie was not only flat, but the echos of the vibrant pulse of the 80’s original still spikes over the bland re-creation of every plot point.  Without at least an interesting new twist at the end, there is literally no reason to watch it.

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The Raven

Why it should have been great:

John Cusack stars as Edgar Allan Poe in a Sherlock Holmes style thriller based on Poe’s numerous tales.  Seriously, what part of that sentence doesn’t sound awesome?

What went wrong:

Edgar Allan Poe is a literary giant.  Screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare, despite her name, is not.  Though the visuals were pretty on target the story consisted of finding clues and arriving too late and finding clues… after a while it feels like a loop and it fails to contribute to or adequately explore Poe’s works, so the promising allure of the premise rises again nevermore.

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Prometheus

Why it should have been great:

Alien Prequel.

What went wrong:

Connecting the film to the highly successful franchise and bringing back the director that started it all gave false hope to many who wanted to see a compelling sci-fi horror film; and instead delivered an elaborately designed, but ill-plotted, quasi-philosophical, highly questionable storyline.  It pretends to explore the chasm between faith and science without taking a leap for true discovery, or at least making a convincing argument for either.

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The Dark Knight Rises

Why it should have been great:

The Dark Knight was a phenomenal achievement on top of the already acclaimed Batman Begins, which turned the genre on its head and delivered the Batman fans had been craving.  Audiences demanded a reprise and ceaselessly speculated about the next installment before Nolan even agreed to do another.  So the bar was set pretty high and the anticipation was palpable.

What went wrong:

Since I won’t review a film I haven’t seen in its entirety, this is my one chance to explain why I hate TDKR so much and forever hold my peace.  For starters, the decision to turn the series into a trilogy was near-sighted, and selfish.  I hate that TDKR is referred to as the final chapter of the Dark Knight trilogy, because that implies that the three films have more connective tissue than they do.  TDKR is not a natural conclusion to Batman Begins and there was no need for such an abrupt ending to the series.  I realize that there is a Ra’s Al Ghul connection and the Scarecrow even makes his third appearance, but these elements were contrived to bookend a series that artificially truncates the Dark Knight’s story. The forced conclusion effectively makes future installments by other directors extremely difficult and all but eliminates the possibility of continuing Batman films in the same vein.  It’s also worth noting that M.Night Shyamalan already did what Nolan gets so much credit for when he made Unbreakable, which was in essense the first installment of a trilogy that never happened, because it was too problematic.

The story chosen, taking Gotham under siege and revolting against its wealthy class (Occupy Gotham), lacks the layers and depth that the first two films had and simply piles scene upon scene, tenuously linking these separate characters and ideas together when they could have all been better used under different circumstances.  Rather than reinforce the story by reiterating a solid theme, Nolan pulls from three separate storylines in the Batman universe and files them down in order to force pieces together that don’t belong. The scenes were shallow and lacked the showmanship of the previous films that made it possible; serving as little more than bullet points to an over-reaching plot.  If they dropped the Dent angle and the Bane escape in the beginning, and hit Wayne harder when he was in his prime, not pissing away his inheritance in solitude.  They could have had a solid opening.  I would have liked to see an intro that finds Batman at war with the police possibly discovering “Robin” to be a worthy adversary/potiential apprentice.

Also, if they weren’t going to have Batman for most of the movie, they should have introduced Azrael, his temporary replacement, rather than setting up a Robin. I love Robin and JGL, but why use screen time setting something up when you are concluding your “trilogy”.  When Batman is in the movie, the action is a joke.  I think history will tell that people would rather forget about this film. It basically spits on the success of the franchise and gives its audience the finger. Bottom line is, if Nolan didn’t want to do the movie, he should have left it alone and let someone else take a crack at it.  Still, I had seen enough warning signs to diminish my expectations, so it wasn’t my biggest let down of the year.

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Brave

Why it should have been great:

It’s Pixar, first of all, and it was in development for a really long time.  It was going to be the first folk/fairy tale by the studio, effectively trading places with Walt Disney Animation Studios which made the much more Pixar sounding Wreck-it Ralph.  When it was titled The Bear and the Bow, the early artwork was gorgeous and the original story description read like and Mulan meets The Little Mermaid.

What went wrong:

They changed writers and dropped the title in an attempt to make the Bear element a surprise.  The quality of the animation slipped by Pixar standards, apparently putting everyone on staff on “hair duty” and letting everything else slide.”  The story was slow, way too simple for its running time and it did little to distinguish itself from the previous Disney disappointment Brother Bear.

Movie Review: Battleship

The low held expectations of, I think, most people when they found out that Hasbro not only planned to make a movie based on the Battleship board game, but that it was in fact put into production as a summer blockbuster a la Transformers was due mostly to skepticism about how such an adaptation would even be possible.  The inevitable question that would follow the rolling eyes of anyone who’d read about it was “How?”  It seemed an insane and poor attempt to wring more money out Hasbro’s properties, especially in the wake of the underwhelming G.I. Joe.  When the Ouija board movie was scrapped it seemed like Battleship shouldn’t stand a chance, yet it was given big money production and seemed unflinching in its development and marketing strategy.  All the while, I for one believed the entire experiment was doomed.

Such gross conflict is exactly what Battleship thrives on in its film incarnation.  It may be flippant and clumsy, but the premise is actually very strong and the plotting really proves that not only can it be done, but it turns out it can be done pretty well.  It is funny to me when I think of how much must have been riding on the success of the film and how little the makers seemed to take it seriously, particularly at the start of the film, where engaging your audience is crucial, they seem to test your willingness to submit to a film over two hours in length with no (then) discernible plot.  The characters are goofy with questionable dialogue and the scenes are irreverent and almost whimsical.  It’s fun, but only increases doubts that the movie will ever come together.  Happily this trial is a short one and once the filmmakers begin to take things more seriously the film begins to look better and better and slowly, but definitely wins you over by the end.

The hero of the story is Hopper, a romantic, gifted, but arrogant naval commander who is always in trouble and looked after by his strait laced brother, a captain.   Their superior is also the father of Hoppers girlfriend and they need his permission in order to marry.  Hopper is like maverick in Top Gun if he consistently under performed and disappointed.  He’s not the guy you want making decisions when the fate of the world is at stake.  Meanwhile, the alien threat in this movie is very menacing.  The set up, which somewhat and very ingeniously mirrors its source of inspiration in a way that should satisfy even the most cynical movie fan, leads the naval fleet into near hopelessness.  The film turns out to be very delicately plotted, satisfying the basic, but crucial demands of its source material, and previous Hasbro successes.  The references to the game, whether implied by peg shaped missiles or graphically depicted with computer monitors and birds eye perspectives, or simply buried in the premise made this adaptation a win, as did the wildly imaginative alien tech and the strategy that keeps you engrossed and hoping Hopper can pull out a “W” just this once.

Battleship borrows heavily from Iron Man, Top Gun, Aliens, and is definitely modeled after ID4.  While it doesn’t reach that level of greatness it does bring some freshness to the mix of “been there done that ” that makes it a fun, enjoyable film worth watching at least once.  In fact, in terms of the many sources cited and referenced in the film I’d compare it to John Carter which is also reminiscent of several earlier films in its search for a unique identity.  I only think that while John Carter might have been more interesting because of those allusions Battleship comes out a better film in spite of them.