Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: After Earth

It’s not often that you can predict an actor’s fall from the grace of the public. Sure, I think we all knew deep down that sooner or later people were going to turn on Tom Cruise, and let’s be honest here, if all it took was jumping on a couch that’s more on them than him. Along those same lines, it’s been a long time since there has been a more awkward PR tour than the one Will Smith is giving now to promote After Earth, his latest sci-fi film that hits theaters today. In interview after interview, sitting alongside his on-and-off screen son Jaden, he espouses his theory that the world is made up of patterns, mathematical in nature, that control everything that we experience on a daily basis. While Will proclaims himself to be a physicist, Jaden is avoiding questions about dating a Kardashian.

Why do I even bring this up? Because gossiping about the Smiths’ weird behavior is ten times more entertaining than discussing the albatross that they have released upon theatergoers today.

In After Earth, humans have left Earth after destroying with wars and pollution. Opening 1,000 years after that forced evacuation, we are still battling the original inhabitants of our new home, named Nova Prime.  After a long tour-of-duty, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) returns home to reconnect with the family he left behind, especially his now teenaged son Kitai (Jaden Smith) who has grown distant.

While traveling through space on a father-son trip, their craft is damaged by an asteroid storm. Seeking a landing spot on the nearest planet, they crash land on a now dangerous Earth. The only two surviving members of the crash, a badly injured Cypher sends Kitai on a mission to recover the craft’s rescue beacon and call for help before he bleeds to death. Kitai takes off across unknown territory filled with animals that have evolved into killing machines.

Well, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but so is everything else in this film. For some reason, hawks have now gained the ability to grow to be twice the size of humans, but wild boars look the same and run for cover around humans. The planet also now suffers from nightly Ice Ages, with the temperature dropping five degrees every ten minutes at a certain time of day (except for a handful of conveniently placed “hot spots”). This results in one of my favorite bad movie clich├ęs: someone attempting to outrun the weather.

The director of this disaster is the man, the myth, the legend himself, M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). Remember when this dude was being called the new Hitchcock by folks with straight faces? The days when his new films were eagerly awaited by filmgoers? Well, now he’s a joke, and both Columbia Pictures and the Smiths’ have done everything in their powers to hide the fact that he has anything to do with this film. “Maybe if we just don’t mention a director, people will assume that the film magically made itself!”

To be honest, there really aren’t that many of Shyamalan’s signature touches to be found here. Sure, we have the whispered, intense conversations between father and son that are the norm in his pictures, but there isn’t a twist to be found within a thousand miles of After Earth. That’s right, when we finally beg the guy for something interesting, he carries on like he’s directing an episode of Mike & Molly.

Will Smith is credited with the story, which sees his character sidelined with broken legs early on, and asks Jaden to carry the film from thereon out. The junior Smith was fine in both The Pursuit of Happyness and the Karate Kid remake. In Pursuit, he wasn’t asked to do much; in KK, Jackie Chan did all of the heavy lifting onscreen. Here he is given the unenviable task of being the sole character onscreen for vast amounts of time, with little dialogue to help fill the spaces and only his charisma to rely on. The problems begin when we realize that Jaden is no Will; there is little charisma or charm to be found in this kid, which may be unfair to say about a 15 year old, but you have to point the arrow somewhere when a $130 million production plays like a backyard mumblecore flick.
Usually a reviewer takes the last paragraph to boil down his points, give a final thought, and basically tells you whether to watch the movie or avoid it. Forget that; honestly, do you know anyone that has actually been awaiting this thing? It’s safe to say that most of you were going to skip this one anyway, so instead I suggest you do what I plan on doing: sit back, enjoy the carnage that follows when this bombs, and speculate as to how quickly the Smiths’ will disown any creative contribution they gave to this stinker.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: Fast & Furious 6

One of the biggest surprises for film in 2011 was the critical embrace that Fast Five, the fifth installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise, received upon its release. The series of films were considered little more than punchlines to serious cinema fans, but with the fifth a change had come; cinemaphiles seemingly made a decision to laugh with the lunkheads championing the movies, instead of laughing at them.

The derision heeped up the franchise was deserved, however, make no mistake of that. Featuring a cast lead by two walking 2x4s, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, little thought seemed to go into the scripts other than how to get the characters into cars that go fast.

Fast Five brought a change to the action by introducing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to the mix, and whether critics knew it beforehand, it turned out that everyone was interested in watching a fight onscreen between Diesel and his Samoan counterpart. By setting the production in Brazil, the filmmakers were able to place the characters in a different setting to destroy as well.

Fast & Furious 6 opens with Dom (Diesel) and Brian (Walker) attempting to create a new life in paradise with their new families, only to be disturbed by a returning Hobbs (Johnson). It seems that Hobbs needs help tracking down and capturing a team of terrorist street racers (stay with me here), and offers the only two bargaining chips he has: full pardons for everyone in Dom’s gang, enabling them to return to the US safely, and the opportunity to reunite with his supposedly-dead ex-girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez).

Reuniting the gang in London, Dom goes about tracking down evil counterpart Shaw (Luke Evans), who is attempting to steal all of the components needed to create a weapon that is capable of knocking out communication among soldiers in battle. Shaw is the antithesis to Dom; completely unattached to the members of his crew, and ruthless in his attempts at escape.

Lets go ahead and put all the cards on the table: this film is nowhere near as good as Fast Five. In fact, it’s not good at all. All of the fun that can be found in the previous film is sorely lacking here.

Was it the big Rock vs Diesel fight that really made the fifth movie enjoyable? Did Diesel just give a damn in that one, since he clearly doesn’t here? Does Diesel look back at his early attempts at branching away from action and starring in serious roles and think, “Whoo, glad that’s over!” Does Paul Walker thank the deity of his choice every night for helping him land this guaranteed paycheck?

If Walker doesn’t, he should, because what little chemistry he and Diesel have displayed together over the years has now vanished, with only Johnson there to provide charisma in this production. On second thought, that’s not entirely fair, as newcomer Gina Carano is brought into the franchise in a largely thankless role, asked merely to stand beside Johnson and smirk for 80% of her screen time. Still, she manages to project a presence, which is more than can be said for the rest of the “crew”.

What it boils down to is, why bother worrying about characters onscreen when it’s clear they are living in a world without consequences. This is a film where someone can threaten a high-ranking government official with a gun and minutes later it is forgotten. Multiple scenes feature people jumping from moving vehicles onto speeding cars below, with nary a scratch to be found afterwards. In fact, it seems the only way to court danger in this film is to be a third-tier character contemplating settling down.

This was the last FF film for director Justin Lim, and a case could be made that he stayed one film too many. While Fast Five surprised many with its action sequences that defy logic, here we are presented with scenes that deny clear thinking. With the heroes committing crimes that would mark them as wanted criminals by every major law enforcement agency in the world, is it too much to ask for at least a flat tire every now and then?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Peeples

It’s hard for one not to be cynical and merely view Peeples as an “urban” rip-off of Meet the Parents. That film, now 13 years old (yeesh), took the tired story of the nervous boyfriend meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time and spun it into gold, thanks to a talented cast playing to their strengths and bringing their A games. Even if Peeples wanted to take that approach with basically the same storyline, would the audience be as invested in Craig Robinson (The Office) and David Alan Grier (In Living Color) as they were for Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro?

Peeples revolves around Wade Walker (Robinson), an aspiring psychologist who has been dating Grace (Kerry Washington) for a year and still hasn’t met her family. When she leaves to visit the family at their house in the Hamptons, Wade decides to follow behind her and surprise everyone by asking her father, Judge Peeples (Grier), for Grace’s hand in marriage. Upon arriving, he finds that Grace has not mentioned him or their relationship. Wade spends the rest of the film attempting to gain the approval of the family, hijinks and misunderstandings be damned.

The biggest strength and flaw of the film was the casting of Robinson in the role of the hapless Wade. Robinson, despite cutting an imposing figure, has always appeared to be a lovable lunk of a guy; if you are the father of a daughter that has had multiple questionable relationships in the past, you would feel like she had finally found a nice fella to settle down with. Hence, one of the reasons the adversarial tone between Wade and the Judge seems so whackadoo. This isn’t Ben Stiller fumbling, mumbling, bumbling and stumbling all over your house; this is a dude that anyone would be happy to bring into your family.

The only way that screenwriter and first-time director Tina Gordon Chism (Drumline) can amp up the tension is by following Parents almost scene by scene. Father doesn’t take potential son-in-law’s career seriously? Check. Does the nice guy hear a conversation that he misinterprets for something much more sinister involving the dad? Of course. Is there a youngest child going wild unbeknownst to his parents? Mmm-hmm. Is there a final fight between everyone involved where the daughter will side with her father’s wild allegations, despite being the only one there to actually know the suitor long enough to have a reasonable suspicion that he may be a thief or drug addict? Well now you’re just taking all of the fun out of this.

Much could, and probably will, be said about the fact that the only true innovation that the film has going for it is its predominantly black cast. Honestly, the film doesn’t even touch on that concept more than a couple of times, like when Wade addresses a family picture as the “chocolate Kennedys”. Why does no one in the film ask what it’s like to be one of the few black families in the lily white Hamptons? When a subplot is introduced over a family member hiding her homosexuality, why isn’t her reasoning behind that thought process explored? One of the many scenes involving bicycle riding could have been excised to give one of these more serious concepts room to grow, but Chism chose to go the more lackadaisical route.
Peeples, despite advertising producer Tyler Perry’s name all over the advertising, isn’t the worst thing you will see this year in theaters. No one is involved in a highly unlikely abusive relationship, and an AIDS scare isn’t shoehorned in at the last minute for a ham-fisted moral. All in all, it isn’t really bad as much as forgettable, and I mean that literally; I could definitely see members of the audience running across this on TBS a couple of years from now and trying to remember if they have seen this film or not. No, in the end the film is simply buried beneath comparisons to its earlier, better inspiration, talented case be damned.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

Perhaps no larger honor can be given to Robert Downey Jr. than the fact that so many fans are clamoring to see Iron Man 3 in theaters, despite the tepid response most viewers had to the last installment in the comic-book franchise. More than Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, more than Christian Bale as Batman; hell, maybe even more than Christopher Reeve as Superman, no other actor has come to be synonymis with a character than Downey as the iron-clad tech warrior.

So it goes that Marvel Studios rushed the character back onto the big screen after the wild success of The Avengers, perhaps to wash the bad taste of that misguided sequel out of moviegoers mouths. With Jon Favreau stepping away from the director’s chair, Shane Black was invited into the Marvel fold with his first directing gig since 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and only his second directorial effort ever.

When we first meet Tony Stark in IM3, it is apparent that he has been living an existence one step removed from a modern day Howard Hughes since the events that transpired in The Avengers; constantly tinkering in his basement and building new Iron Man armor, stricken with panic attacks over nearly dying while fighting off the alien invasion in New York, and managing to ignore his girlfriend/new head of Stark Industries Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). If that weren’t enough, he is quickly introduced to two new adversaries: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), head of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics); and Bin Laden-esque terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

The Mandarin’s unknown followers are responsible for at least nine known terrorist attacks, the knowledge of only three of which have been released to the American public. Tony is drawn into a battle with the Mandarin when an attack in Los  Angeles leaves one of his closest friends in a coma. The battle between these two forces quickly draw others in, including the returning character of Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), old flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), and President Ellis (William Sadler).

The visual effects and action sequences are stunning, especially when Tony's Iron Man brigade takes flight. The costuming, however, is more hit-and-miss. Other than a brief sequence that involves Pepper donning an Iron Man suit in an emergency, the filmmakers seem to have no qualms leaving Paltrow to run around in a sports bra. On the other hand, the updates given to The Mandarin, with his ringed fingers and camo-via-Asia outfit, look terrific. It’s hard to believe this is the ridiculous character mocked by comic fans for decades.

The biggest surprise in the film is how easily Black puts his stamp on the franchise. Taking a character that has been given little more to do than create a flying tank and crack one-liners, Black revisits the characters of his creative past and brings a darkness to Stark that has been missing heretofore. A complexity is given to Tony, making us question if he would follow his personal demons into the dark if it weren’t for the neverending project that is being Iron Man.

Without giving too much away, Marvel has managed to tie up the Iron Man franchise with a nice bow at the end of this third film, not necessarily saying we will never see the character again, but definitely letting us in on the fact that it will be a while before Iron Man 4 hits screens. But with closure like this, I’m sure fans will eagerly await the new adventures of Tin Head in the meantime.