Friday, May 31, 2013

A Reel Review: AFTER EARTH

Fifteen or twenty years ago, the idea of M. Night Shyamalan directing Will Smith in a science fiction adventure would have been an exciting one; both men were able to churn out critical and box-office success seemingly at ease. A lot of things have changed since then, and here in 2013 the two finally team-up in AFTER EARTH.
A crash landing leaves teenager Kitai (Jaden Smith, son of Will) and his father Cypher (Will Smith, father of Jaden) stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after humanity has abandoned the planet. With Cypher injured, Kitai must take a dangerous journey to get help while evading dangerous animal species that now inhabit the wild planet, and an alien which escaped the crash.

AFTER EARTH sets itself up to be an intimate father-son story, as Kitai must face his issues with daddy and his own fears to save both their lives. Once the crash happens, great steps are taken to set the stage for what Kitai must go through, and it is there the movie immediately falls into a mundane and routine affair. As Cypher explains every single obstacle and adversary out in the wild, the audience can right away put together every single thing that will happen in the movie. It just comes one step short of having a road-map in your lap while viewing. It’s a goal-driven movie sprinkled with light character interaction which feels right at home in a video game, but shallow on the big screen.
The predictability is made worse by the absence of any sort of personal touch by director M. Night Shyamalan. M. Night brings nothing of worth to the film; his characters are boring, the action sequences are thrill-less, and the attempted scares fall flat. There is no spirit or energy to be found, and worse, no heartbeat for a father-son drama. The script takes too much advantage of convenient plot devices and points (technology is used as a crutch for the filmmakers to move things along and get out of tight spots), and also takes massive leaps in its own logic. While some of the visuals of the environment are wonderfully realized, the CGI creatures are un-convincing, and the score is as generic as elevator music.

M. Night deserves some sort of award for sucking all of the charisma and fun out of Will Smith. Smith blurts out his lines with less emotion than an infernal talking Apple device, and he never once is interesting or lovable as a father figure. It doesn’t help that the man spends 90% of the movie stuck in a chair, but even with such a limitation M. Night and Smith should have been able to generate some sort of spark. Jaden Smith fares no better and is as wooden as his father, and his big, mid-film emotional moment is nothing short of laughable. The best acting in the film surprisingly goes to Zoe Kravitz, who appears here and there in scattered, albeit useless flashbacks.
The finale arrives the same way every other event in the film does; with a predictable and ineffective thud. Everything that leads up to the lame attempt at family drama for an emotional punch at the end is too light and weak to be of any use. It seems that M. Night and Will Smith did not bring any of themselves into this collaboration, and one can only hope that they never decide to do it again. Once is certainly enough.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Reel Opinion: The Curious Case of AFTER EARTH

By now, moviegoers have been battered with trailers, commercials, and behind-the-scenes promo-reels for the upcoming science-fiction thriller, AFTER EARTH. The film, which stars Will Smith and his cloned-son Jaden, is a father-son story taking place on a futuristic planet Earth inhabited by dangerous evolved animals, and an alien species. The trailers and promotional materials show the movie to be full of CGI- driven creatures and action, and plenty of the Smiths. But most audiences are not aware that AFTER EARTH is closely holding on to one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood right now: the name of its director; M. Night Shyamalan.
For perhaps the first time in film history, or at least on a scale this large, the director’s name has been kept off of every trailer and TV spot currently in rotation. The behind-the-scenes promo-reels, which are in heavy rotation in movie-theatre “first look” pre-shows, contain many interviews with the cast and producer, but no mention of the director. There seems to be a definite effort to keep the name of M. Night far, far away from the marketing of AFTER EARTH. The question is, why?

In many cases, a name is all people need to go see a movie. Studios know that and often capitalize on it. Quentin Tarantino’s name is presented in bigger and fatter letters than the title of his films, and it is very rare to see a Tim Burton movie marketed without “A Tim Burton Film” over the title. The marketing for the upcoming Superman flick, MAN OF STEEL, has nearly fallen over itself in making sure the world knows Christopher Nolan (THE DARK KNIGHT) is involved as a producer. The strategy works and can be seen right down to the literary world; just look at the cover of any Stephen King book.
There is an old saying: you are only as good as your last film. The marketing for AFTER EARTH is proof of that adage. The cold hard truth is that M. Night Shyama-lama-ding-dong has directed one too many stinking turds over the past nine years, and his name is now box-office poison. The brilliant films he wrote and directed in the early part of his career are a distant memory, and he clearly can no longer ride the coattails of that old success. The studios know that, and have chosen to market AFTER EARTH without his once revered name.

Considering the success and intrigue M. Night once had, his old fans have to be quietly pulling for the guy to show his former brilliance, as the movie-world could certainly use a good M. Night.
AFTER EARTH opens May 31st. It stars Will Smith, Jaden Smith, and Zoe Kravitz.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


“Your father he is.”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of RETURN OF THE JEDI.
RETURN OF THE JEDI was the third chapter in the Original Trilogy of STAR WARS films, and ultimately the sixth Episode in the overall Original Saga. Originally titled REVENGE OF THE JEDI, the film often suffers from unfair comparison to its predecessor, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Although JEDI did not have the emotional punch and depth that EMPIRE had, it served the many purposes and tasks which were asked of it; it had to answer the many questions and wrap up the cliffhangers brought up in the previous two films, and it had to finish off the many storylines set in motion nearly six years before. JEDI’s purpose was to be the capstone to the large structure underneath it, and it accomplishes that mission just fine.

Directed by Richard Marquand and written by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, the film was the overall No. 1 U.S. Box Office champion in 1983, and thanks to healthy re-releases in 1985 and 1997, currently ranks 38th overall in the domestic Box Office. JEDI was nominated for four Oscars, with the visual effects team receiving a Special Achievement for Visual Effects.

As a young Padawan, this Blogger fondly remembers having to suffer through the agonizing three-year wait in-between EMPIRE and JEDI. Back then, information and material was hard to come by, and waiting around for the answers to the many questions brought up in EMPIRE was like being in a desert. It was a time for the very first round of debates between friends and cousins over the truth behind Darth Vader and his claim at the end of EMPIRE, and the knowledge that there would eventually be another STAR WARS movie kept the action figures and their vehicles flying around the back yard. When JEDI arrived it did not disappoint; it didn’t put a capstone on the franchise, but instead kept it flying.
“The Force is strong in my family…”


Friday, May 17, 2013


Director JJ Abrams’ 2009 STAR TREK film was a literal reboot of the long-standing series; wiping the slate clean with a clever time-travel angle which gave our familiar characters a brand new stage to explore. Where the second film was the introduction, the second film, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, is where that stage is given its test of durability.
Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew…which includes Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Chris Pine) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are sent out into space to hunt down a vengeful terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch).

To reveal more of the plot would be a crime, as DARKNESS is loaded to the bridge with many twists and turns, character drama and revelations, and layers of political and personal deceit. With the events of the first film in mind, DARKNESS is an extended time-travel story. Familiar characters, places, and events from the old TREK universe are present, but this time they unfold in unpredictable and fresh ways. Old TREK fans will have their minds blown half-way across the universe, while even the most casual ones will pick up on the gravity of what is being revealed before their eyes. The film is saturated in TREK lore; it is familiar territory but presented in a fresh new light.
At the core of the TREK-ness are the characters, with Kirk and Spock being at the moral center. Amidst the roller-coaster adventure are two men who couldn’t be more different, but wind up sharing a friendship which keeps the film grounded and likeable. Their characters, and the characters around them, develop and excel via the events around them, and it is a fascinating watch to see them be themselves and grow into the old forms in (again), new light.

JJ Abrams keeps the pace brisk and humor well-timed. The action set-pieces for the most part are thrilling, while some other ones only feel like they were spliced in just to spruce things up. Similar to JJ’s first TREK, the script makes some massive leaps to get characters from A to Z, but it is forgivable as the eventual payoff is well worth it. JJ has put together a beautiful looking film, and the energy levels throughout are high enough to power a warp drive.
Acting is superb. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto really seem to believe in their characters and hit all the right emotional notes. The supporting cast is equally great, with Simon Pegg’s Scotty getting the most laughs and an interesting arc for himself. The show is stolen by Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives a downright chilling performance. The smaller roles are held down very well by Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Anton Yelchin (Checkov), and John Cho (Sulu). Karl Urban continues to give a creepy, bring-DeForest-Kelley-back-from-the-dead performance as Dr. McCoy.

The finale goes for the emotional heartstrings and nails every one of them. It is so good that the film almost feels anti-climatic as it goes into another breakneck action sequence in the last ten minutes. However, the payoff which eventually comes is worth it, and the extra flashes and bangs can be forgiven. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is fun, entertaining, thought-provoking and meaningful. Abrams has taken his new stage and elevated it to places where we haven’t been before.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


“Shall we play a game?”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of WARGAMES.
Directed by John Badham (known at the time for SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER), WARGAMES was a film ahead of its time. Focusing on a high school wiz-kid (played by Matthew Broderick) who accidently hacks (new term for the time) into a U.S. military supercomputer and nearly starts WWIII, the film presented scenarios in global warfare and computer networking which the world would not see for real for nearly 20 more years.

The high concept was frightening for the time, and the gamble paid off. WARGAMES was the fifth-highest grossing film that year, and it was screened at the annual Cannes Film Festival. Critics loved it, and President Reagan would later discuss the plot of the film with Congress. WARGAMES was nominated for three Oscars; Cinematography, Sound, and Writing. The impressive, large-screen digital displays in one of the large set-pieces (NORAD) was good enough to earn a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy. The film would help propel the career of Broderick, and his young co-star, Ally Sheedy. Badham would go on to direct another popular 80’s tech-flick, SHORT CIRCUIT.

Growing up in the 80’s, access to technology was nowhere near the level that it is today. Manipulating images on the TV screen came via an Atari 2600 game system (or one of its lesser competitors), and those images were clunky and blocky and kinda stupid (although at the time they were awesome). WARGAMES not only opened up the door to the future of gaming and computer networking, but it also gave a bit of validation to all those nerdy kids who preferred to bang away at the computer instead of playing ball outside or getting into trouble with their peers. Those who were inspired by WARGAMES to keep at the tech are likely working in the industry today, or still have a leg-up on the world when it comes to computers. Aside from that, the film also asks interesting questions (and dares to answer) about nuclear war and the ramifications about making a move to wipe out the other side. The world can learn a lot from WARGAMES.
“…and when we go, nature will start over.”

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Reel Opinion: The Not-So-Great Gatsby

This past weekend, the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel The Great Gatsby was released in theatres. Although the film performed well at the box office ($51 million; good enough for second place domestically), it is struggling in critical circles. Movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 48% of critics gave it a positive rating (based on 152 reviews), and Metacritc reflects a score of 55 (out of 100); indicating mixed or average.
This is the second big-screen, big-effort to bring Fitzgerald’s book to life with mixed to dismal results. Considering the book’s stature in American literary history, and the pieces-and-parts involved in the adaptation attempts, the mixed results are a head-scratcher. A 1974 version, starring acting heavyweights Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, was a critical and financial flop despite the top-notch cast and a script written by Francis Ford Coppola. This new version stars the 2013-version of Redford in Leonardo DiCaprio, and is directed by Baz Luhrmann…whose MOULIN ROUGE (2001) was nominated for several Oscars and Golden Globes. With such a great novel to pull from and so many talented names involved, why can’t The Great Gatsby find success on the silver screen?

It all comes back to the source material. Gatsby just might be an un-filmable novel. Despite being ranked among the greatest works of American literature and of all-time, its core story is kind of pointless. The book succeeds on themes more than story, and those are hard to get across on film. Gatsby is a book which isn’t concerned very much about its characters or what they have to go through; it’s concerned about teaching lessons about idealism and excess…things which are just as important now as they were in the book’s time period, The Roaring Twenties. Thematically, Gatsby is great, but the slim story does not lend itself to the movies. Decades ago, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, like Gatsby, was also considered to be un-filmable. But RINGS wound up succeeding because its ultimate objective was simple: destroy evil, save the world. Now, ask ten different people what the ultimate objective of Gatsby  is, and you’ll get ten different answers and one fistfight.

We are in a frustrating Hollywood age where studios are afraid to take chances on new material and would rather remake a 20-year old movie with a familiar name than to try something original. The world of classic literature feels like an untapped gold mine waiting to be discovered. Hopefully the studios will leave certain ones on the shelf. A lousy adaptation doesn't help the movies as a whole, and certainly won't encourage anyone to go read it.

What say you?



Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ray Harryhausen 1920-2013

Visual effects pioneer and legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen has died.
Before CGI made dinosaurs walk, Iron Man soar, and Gollum creep about, the illusion of fantastic creatures and characters that could not exist were brought to life by Ray Harryhausen. His brand of stop-motion animation, known as “dynamation”, used realistic miniature models mixed with live action to bring about some startling visuals never before seen; humans interacting with winged horses, sword-fighting skeletons, and oversized sabertooth cats suddenly became a reality. But it wasn’t just his talent to make things move which made an impact; it was his ability to make those things behave in a way their real-counterparts would behave…that added element of reality was what made his films so special.

His career spanned five decades and blazed new trails in films such as MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977), and CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). He was a multi-award winner and is cited as a major influence by filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and John Landis.

As a wee-lad growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, having access to movies was nowhere as easy as it is today. It was therefore always a treat to catch Harryhausen’s old films on a new service called HBO. This Blogger quickly became educated in the ways of stop-motion wizardry with the marvelous SINBAD films, which still hold up well today. It was eventually CLASH OF THE TITANS which really opened up the imagination and popped the eyeballs; someone had finally managed to bring the Greek gods and their creatures to life, and the film probably stands as Harryhausen’s lasting legacy. It is from that film that this Blogger must borrow a quote from to properly send him off:
“Even if we gods are abandoned or forgotten the stars will never fade. They will burn till the end of the time.”

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Reel Review: IRON MAN 3

How does Marvel Studios follow-up its own gigantic spectacle which was THE AVENGERS? Simple: they take their most popular character, strip him down to nothing and let him start all over again. The idea was to go deeper and not bigger, and the execution of that idea either makes IRON MAN 3 soar or land with a large clank.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering from post-trauma after the events in THE AVENGERS, which is straining his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Meanwhile, a terrorist called The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) begins blowing things up and an eager inventor (Guy Pearce) begins creating super-powered villains.

IRON MAN 3 is all about the character of Tony Stark as he wrestles with his new demons and faces threats which are hidden from him. After a major event leaves Stark homeless and without his normal resources, the character is left to basically start over; making the film a near-reboot of his overall story. Held together by off-camera narration by Stark himself, the film drifts into a clever gumshoe story as Stark pursues his adversaries and internal problems.
We certainly get invested in Stark’s issues and what he has to do, however as the film unfolds the ultimate motivations of the villains becomes a bit muddled. Exactly what they are after and why isn’t entirely clear, and the film often relies on small and short tidbits to try and drive things home. While it works for the most part, there often feels like there is a little more fleshing out that could have been done.

Despite the murkiness of the script in places, there is a ton of fun to be had in IRON MAN 3. In addition to rooting for our main character, director/writer Shane Black offers some spectacular action scenes, and his talent for sharp and witty dialogue offers the most LOL moments ever in a Marvel film despite how many darker moments come around. Black is also smart enough to keep things fresh no matter how often it drifts into familiar and clich├ęd territory; scenes with Stark and a young kid, which could have been disastrous, nearly steal the show thanks to some excellent writing and acting.
Robert Downey Jr. once again owns the character. He is perfectly suited for Black’s razor-sharp dialogue and nails every scene. Gwyneth Paltrow only has a few great moments to shine as this time around she is asked to do more physical work than has ever been asked of her. Guy Pearce makes for a good bad guy, and Don Cheadle’s Col. Rhodes character is reduced to an effective sidekick. The most entertaining performance has to go to Sir Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin character. Kingsley is full of perfect menace in the early goings, and when his character takes an unpredictable and bold turn (an innovative turn never before seen in a superhero film), he really gets to have fun with the role and that fun extends to the audience.

The wild finale comes about after a major action set-piece in which the cork is pulled out of a shaken-up Iron Man bottle, and a geyser-rush of comic-book mayhem and fun takes to the skies. By the end, characters meet their resolutions a little too quickly, but thematically it works and the door is left open for some very interesting possibilities down the road. IRON MAN 3 soars in many places with only a few chinks in the armor, and very few will be leaving the theatre without a beaming, ear-to-ear smile.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Year in Film 2013: Episode IV

The first quarter of the year is mercifully headed for the exit door, taking with it a pile of terrible movies. Enter the month of May; the official start to the Summer Movie Season and a hopeful rise in quality.
The Season rightfully kicks off with:

IRON MAN 3: What better way to begin the second phase of Marvel’s connected series of superhero films than with the hero who started it all in the first place. This third IRON MAN movie is directed by Shane Black (KISS KISS BANG BANG), and once again stars Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role. Co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, and Sir Ben Kingsley.
THE ICEMAN: Michael Shannon (TAKE SHELTER) plays a hitman in his chilling true-story about a family man by day and murderer by night. It co-stars Winona Ryder, James Franco, Ray Liotta, and Chris Evans.

THE GREAT GASTBY: This latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a match made in heaven; you either love or hate the book, and you either love or hate the director, Baz Luhrmann (MOULIN ROUGE, AUSTRAILIA). Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, and is joined by Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, and Tobey Maguire.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: JJ Abrams’ second venture into his newly established Trek-verse has a wrathful villain looking to kick Captain Kirk’s ass across every planet in the final frontier. Chris Pine returns as Kirk, as does the entire cast from JJ’s first TREK film. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the Big Bad.

FAST AND THE FURIOUS 6: The sixth (and unofficially seventh) installment in the franchise that won’t die has arrived. Stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, and Michelle Rodriquez.
THE HANGOVER PART III: Another franchise that just won’t stop. Stars Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms.

EPIC: This CG-animated 3D adventure film tells the story of good vs. evil; who keeps the world safe and who is trying to destroy it. Features the voices of Colin Farrell, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Knoxville, and Beyonce Knowles. Chris Wedge (ICE AGE, ROBOTS) directs.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT: This romantic drama film is the sequel to the acclaimed BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and BEFORE SUNSET (2004). Richard Linklater returns to direct Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

AFTER EARTH: The best kept secret in the movies right now is the fact that M. Night Shyamalan is directing this futuristic science-fiction actioneer; all the posters and trailers are keeping his name off. Will Smith stars with his son, Jaden.
NOW YOU SEE ME: Louis Leterrier (THE TRANSPORTER, THE INCREDIBLE HULK) directs this cat-and-mouse flick involving FBI agents trying to capture a gang of magicians. Stars Jessie Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Melanie Laurent, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman.

Next month: Episode V looks at the month of June.