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#720 May 31, 2013
M O V I E S
After Earth (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
In the run-up to the release of After Earth, cynical observers have dismissed it offhand as a crass attempt by Will Smith to officially launch the grown-up summer blockbuster starring career of his steadily rising son, Jaden Smith. With "story by" credit going to the elder Smith, who then takes a literal seat to the younger for virtually the entire run time, it's hard to argue that such a figurative torch pass was not the ultimate intent of the project. But there's also nothing particularly crass about that specific idea, especially when the on- and off-screen father-son dynamic turns out to not only be the only believably sincere note of the whole piece, but the only thing about the whole film that rings the slightest bit true or commands any investment at all.
Blame falls squarely on steadily falling director/co-screenwriter (credited with Gary Whitta) M. Night Shyamalan, for Will's story idea is certainly a workable one for its dual purposes of showcasing his son's skills and making for an adequately compelling adventure. While boasting a futuristic sci-fi angle in the Big Willie Weekend tradition, it's mere window dressing to a fairly simple and familiar premise: after a crash landing onto the long-human-uninhabitable Earth leaves his military general father Cypher Raige (Will) severely injured, underachieving cadet Kitai (Jaden) must brave the wilds of the now-alien earthly environs to reach a lost portion of their ship in order to send a lifesaving emergency distress signal. The pieces are thus squarely in place for archetypal beats and arcs of both a hero's coming-of-age journey and father-son healing tale: a life-or-death trial by fire where Kitai must prove his worth to and earn the respect of his stern father as well as himself, all wrapped up in a commercially friendly entertainment package.
But Shyamalan botches the plan almost immediately, not only from a writing perspective (Jaden's expository opening narration, establishing not only the universe but introducing a key concept known as "ghosting," is horribly rushed and borderline inscrutable, no thanks to the odd accent the whole cast is made to speak in) but a more rote technical level, with seams clumsily, embarrassingly evident in the most basic of green screen compositing FX shots. This foretells a more recurring visual disconnect, that between the lushness of actual jungle locations and the obvious and rather cheap looking artificiality of the soundstage-shot "outdoor" footage. But more bothersome and ruinous are how Shyamalan's worst habits end up overwhelming the most formidable assets at his disposal: the Smiths. Both Will and Jaden are, in their own distinct ways, effortlessly likable performers with an innately, inexplicably magnetic inner spark about them--which Shyamalan soundly quashes with his sledgehammer of sullen solemnity. Will is no stranger to more gravely serious roles, but even in films such as I Am Legend and Seven Pounds it is that spark that then forges such a strong audience connection and identification with his characters' journey through trying circumstances. Here, he appears to have been directed to underplay to the point of catatonia; that Cypher's injuries literally drain out the blood from him proves to be an apt metaphor to what Shyamalan does to him as an actor--to say nothing of Jaden, who, naturally talented though he is, is still much too green to fend for himself if his megawatt superstar father proves unable to do the same.
And so what really should be a rousing journey as far as an adventure yarn, young man coming into his own, and a son bridging an emotional distance with his father, instead plays like a veritable dirge, not only in its plodding pacing (the slim 100-minute run time feels twice that) but its rather astonishing lack of wonder and excitement (understandably afraid though he is, wouldn't an eager, well-trained cadet--as Kitai is established to be in the opening scenes--feel some trace of fun on what is his first real mission/adventure?). When a big climactic showdown with a bloodthirsty alien creature comes off as a chore to check off on a laundry list of story beats than an exhilarating action sequence--never mind the ultimate culmination of a character arc--something is truly amiss.
(Fast &) Furious 6 (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
I admit I've historically never been among the apparently many fans of the surprisingly enduring The Fast and the Furious series, but the previous film, 2011's Fast Five, signaled for me the franchise--to use a too-on-the-nose cliché--turning a major corner. With the heavy-handed, deathly earnest pseudo-Zen racing-as-a-metaphor-for-life self-importance of the first, third, and fourth films merging with lighter, more jovial tone of the second film, the result made for an entertaining popcorn package whose key to success was largely due to achieving the right balance between the straight-faced, corny "dramatics" and aggressively over-the-top action one would expect with a most healthy and incredibly welcome helping of humor--a balance embodied by what is the series' canniest casting move, the addition of Dwayne Johnson (as FBI agent Luke Hobbs), whose tongue-in-cheek yet not overly jokey self-awareness is as innate and unapologetic as his machismo. Furious 6 (the film's proper title; no "Fast &" here, and one has to wonder why Universal didn't just market under the shorter, snappier title--the target audience isn't that stupid... is it?) finds returning/outgoing director Justin Lin further polishing the winning template he set with that turnaround fifth film, retaining that tonal balance while further upping the action ante and making more smart additions to cast. In the latter respect, the most notable addition is in fact a return: Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, lost love of street racing outlaw Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), back from the dead and with amnesia to boot.
Trotting out such a double-whammy cliché/convention of soap opera is apt for a series that in its newfound groove (1) expands the character canvas and ever-knotty universe mythology about tenfold with each installment; (2) shamelessly traffics in mind-numbing contrivance and formula; and (3) owns them with such stylish verve it doesn't matter a damn. But beyond the gleeful extremes of its physics-flouting set pieces (involving not only a plethora of fast cars but a plane and an actual tank this time), ever-goofy comic relief (Johnson, Ludacris, and Tyrese Gibson make amusing sparring partners), and pretentious pseudo-profound platitudes ("family" is the big buzz concept this time around), there is some concrete merit on display, particularly from a technical standpoint. While there are some necessary, unavoidable CG enhancements to up the proverbial ante, Lin uses practical stunt work when and wherever possible, thus giving every vehicular collision and crunch that much more impact; not requiring any post-production enhancement are the physical gifts of series newcomers Gina Carano (as Hobbs's new partner) and Joe Taslim (as a member of the shady gang Letty is now a part of), lending some added martial arts (bad pun intended) kick to the crash-'em-up proceedings. And while acting is distinctly secondary at best for this series (and, as usual, is a mixed bag as far as individual performances), the core of the ever-ballooning ensemble--Diesel, Rodriguez, Johnson, Ludacris, Gibson, Paul Walker, Sung Kang and Jordana Brewster--continue to function well together, and that familiar group chemistry akin to (yes) family will prove to fuel the engine (bad metaphor intended) already-confirmed seventh installment as much as those big stunts and the arrival of a Big Name Big Bad teased at this episode's conclusion.
The Hangover Part III (R) BUY THE:Poster!
To director/co-writer (with Craig Mazin) Todd Phillips's credit, unlike the second installment of the series, Part III is not a barely veiled retread of the original--no crazy pre-wedding party, no substance-fueled blackout, no frenzied backtrack to find the outrageous answers to embarrassing questions. It's a rather bold move away from the financially proven formula, but while many other familiar elements are in place--namely, the central "Wolfpack" trio (Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, and Zach Galifianakis, the latter being the central one this time), various other crazy characters (most notably, Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow), and the first film's Las Vegas setting--they count for nil if there aren't any strong ideas or directions to go with them, and Philips and Mazin obviously didn't have any, based on this forced piece of work. This isn't to say that there isn't a laugh or two to be had here, especially with comic talents such as Galifianakis, Helms, Jeong, and series newcomers John Goodman (as the main plot engine, a crime boss that forces the trio to capture Mr. Chow for him) and Melissa McCarthy (as a Vegas pawn shop owner Galifianakis connects with) on board (Cooper remains as nondescript and inoffensively along for the ride as usual). But in the first and even the blatant déjà vu of a second film, the cast's gifts worked in tandem with a solid framework of a comic scenario; here, it becomes really apparent that outside of the originally established formula, Phillips and company really had no clue where to take the Wolfpack, with the actors having to work overtime to enliven, much less make funny, some already labored situations that make this sort of comic caper play more as a trying-too-hard chore than a breezy romp. What makes this all the more disappointing is that there is a one plot angle here that showed genuine potential as charming, funny, and appropriately off-kilter change-of-pace focus for this installment: the romantic pairing between Galifianakis and McCarthy, which in its fairly limited screen time easily achieves the mix of the outrageous and sweet that the rest of the film strains to approach.