Movie Reviews - 2013 postsFriday November 08, 2013
Movie Review: After Earth (2013)
When the Academy Award nominations roll out in January, you’ll probably hear about Matthew McConaughey in this and Robert Redford in that and Chiwtel Ejiofor in the other, but nary a word about Will Smith in “After Earth.” Shame. It’s truly an astonishing performance. For 20 years, Smith has exuded effortless charm and fun onscreen and here he strips himself of both. He gives us nothing. He’s a lump. Kudos to director M. Night Shyamalan for culling such a leaden performance from such a charismatic actor.
“After Earth” is, in a word, awful. It’s a MST3K-type movie. You watch it with friends and toss jokes at the screen. It’s the only way to survive its 100-minute length.
It’s also a little creepy. It feels vaguely Scientology-y. Story by Will Smith, by the way.
Apparently in the near future we will make Earth uninhabitable (global warming, etc.), so will leave, travel light years, and settle on a new planet, which we will name Nova Prime.
All together now: Nova Prime? That’s the name we came up with? Did we get to vote on it? Were there other options? I’m sorry, but nothing indicates B-grade science fiction to me more than “Nova Prime.” I see a 1950s paperback with a drawing of a handsome man and woman grappling in the foreground, and a rocket ship in the background: 35 cents.
A thousand years later an alien race wants to take over Nova Prime (to rename it?), so they sic Ursas on us, huge, multi-limbed creatures which can’t see us until we exude pheromones; until we show fear. Which, since they’re scary, we do. But one man figures out how to defeat them: Just don’t show fear, yo. That man—and again with the names—is Cypher Raige of the United Ranger Corps (Will Smith). His heroism will eventually make him a general. It will also make him a leaden lump. No fear, but not much of anything else, either. Every bit of humanity is drained from his personality.
It’s a father-son story. Cypher’s teenage son, Kitai (Smith’s son Jaden), is attempting to live up to the old man (as is Jaden), so joins Ranger Corps boot camp. He’s good. He can run faster, jump higher, than the other cadets, but in the field he’s a mess. Basically he’s afraid. When he was 10 he watched as his older sister was slaughtered by an Ursa, and the memory always drags him back to fear. It’s a source of tension between father and son, Stoney and Weepy, because the son wasn’t there and didn’t help; and because the father wasn’t there.
Eventually these two will be the only survivors of a crash landing back on Earth, where, as the injured Cypher tells his son ominously, “Everything has evolved to kill humans.”
Cool! Except, it turns out not everything has evolved to kill humans. That flock of birds just kind of swirls in the air, the gibbons don’t attack until Kitai throws a rock at them, and the bird of prey, yes, captures Kitai but eventually saves his life. Plus evolved jungle cats are more interested in the eggs in the nest than Kitai. But the leeches? They have totally evolved to kill humans.
Besides, the main concern isn’t the animals on Earth but the Ursa that was in a cage in the tail section of the ship, which landed 100 kilometers away. That’s also where the distress signal is located. Since Cypher is injured, he can’t retrieve it. It’s up to the son. It’s a journey in which he will keep doing the wrong thing (despite communication with and counsel from his father) until he does the right thing (without communication from his father). In the end he will live up to his father’s name. In battle with the Ursa, he will reach the still place of the soul and show no fear; because, as the father told him, and as the tagline reminds us, “Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”
This is seen as a positive, by the way: showing no fear. But if it leads to becoming a leaden lump, what’s the point?
More, how do you show no fear? Here’s Cypher’s counsel:
Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity, Kitai.
Right. As in “Oh my god, that lion might eat me in one second!” People get so hung up on unreal future thoughts like that.
Domestically, the movie bombed this summer. Since “Independence Day” in 1996, Will Smith has starred in 16 movies. Twelve of them have grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. “After Earth”? $60 million. Because movies are real but going to see them is a choice.
Movie Review: Now You See Me (2013)
Is this the moment when movies finally moved too fast for their own good?
“Now You See Me,” directed by Louis Letierrer (“Clash of the Titans”; “The Incredible Hulk”), zips and swirls and spins around its characters so fast that it leaves them behind. It gives us awful dialogue and predictable situations. It goes “Abracadabra!” but no magic happens.
The Four Horsemen
There’s promise at the beginning. Four magicians with different talents are recruited by a mysterious man in a hoodie and reappear a year later as a great Vegas magic act—a one-off but we don’t know it at the time. Amid their various swirls and spins they take a man from the audience (he’s French), ask him for his bank (it’s in Paris), transport him into its vaults, and then transport back, with the money, which is then showered onto the audience. This brings in both the FBI, in the guise of Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and Interpol, in the much hotter guise of Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent).
The movie becomes theirs. Rhodes, cocky, annoyed, is ready to take down the Four Horsemen, as the act is known, at their next show in New Orleans, but he winds up being taken down on stage, literally, by audience members, who have been hypnotized to tackle whoever says the word “Freeze!” (Anyone who didn’t see this coming wasn’t paying attention.) Meanwhile the Horsemen’s benefactor/manager, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), winds up being bankrupted by his own act. That’s the big trick this time. They take the millions from Tressler’s bank account and disperse it among the audience, all of whom have lost money during the global financial meltdown. It’s Robin Hood with a puff of smoke. After a chase through New Orleans, in which Rhodes is made to look the fool again, the magicians disappear.
The final act takes place in New York, by which time our Horsemen, now famous, the talk of whatever mass media is left, are merely on the edges of the story.
Subplots include a magic-act debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes multimillion dollar videos, and who hounds and embarasses Rhodes; the story of Lionel Shrike, a magician who, years ago, attempted to escape from a safe in the bottom of the East River but who was never seen again; and a mysterious organization called “The Eye,” which is like Freemasons Hall of Fame for magicians.
The actors playing the Horsemen play versions of other roles they’ve played better elsewhere. Jesse Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas is supersmart and talks superfast in the manner of Mark Zuckerberg. (One wonders if Eisenberg will ever be allowed to play dumb again.) Woody Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney is a washed-up rapscallion in the manner of Woody Harrelson. Isla Fisher is the girl who used to be with Atlas and now receives the halfhearted, amused attentions of McKinney, while Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, a pickpocket, is just happy to be there. They’re not bad together, but they disappear—poof!—for most of the movie. Because we need less talk and more swirls and swoops.
I like the “corked” conversation between Harrelson and Fisher. That was fun. Plus we get some not-bad dialogue about magic:
Thaddeus: When a magician waves his hand and says, “This is where the magic is happening,” the real trick is happening somewhere else.
But the focus on the FBI is dull, and the romance between Rhodes and Dray is so forced it almost feels like rape. Laurent is given almost nothing to do. At one point, because Interpol has no jurisdiction in a situation, she’s told to wait in the car. When Rhodes returns she yells at him, “Don't you EVER tell me to stay in the car, EVER!” Right. Sure. OK. But ... why did you wait in the car?
The Fifth Horseman
There’s a lot of chest thumping, arguments over who’s a step ahead of whom, and it all leads up to what’s it all about, Alfie. Turns out the mastermind of it all, the man in the hoodie, is the son of Lionel Shrike. It’s an elaborate revenge plot taken against the safe company that made the defective safe that killed him, the bank in France that I forget what, and Arthur Tressler who did somethingorother.
So who’s the man in the hoodie? The one you least suspect: FBI agent Dylan Rhodes. And at the end, he frames Thaddeus Bradley as the Fifth Horseman, inducts the Four Horsemen into “The Eye,” and goes to France to continue his bad romance with Dray.
“Now You See Me” is an empty, flashy movie, but it’s not all bad. Here’s my favorite part: a bit of dialogue on an airplane. It carries an implicit criticism of the entire movie industry:
Rhodes: What I hate is people who exploit other people.
Dray: Exploit them how?
Rhodes: By taking advantage of their weaknesses. Their need to believe in something that’s unexplainable in order to make their lives more bearable.
Of course “Now You See Me” didn’t exactly make my life more bearable. L’opposite.
Movie Review: Ender's Game (2013)
No 15-year-old should be forced to act distraught and say the line, “I’ve killed an entire species!” but that’s the task given Asa Butterfield at the end of “Ender’s Game,” written and directed by Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), and adapted from the 1985 sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card.
Butterfield (“Hugo”) does his best. He’s good throughout but that’s just an absurd line. Plus we don’t feel the genocide. It’s all simulation. Or simulationy.
What to make of “Ender’s Game”? Earlier this year, there was buzz from the usual sci-fi geek corners but sci-fi geeks are beginning to weary me. Their stories are both futuristic and same-old. You watch “Ender’s Game” and go, “Oh, so he’s ‘The One.’ Oh, so he makes friends and enemies like in ‘Harry Potter,’ and they play a game like Quidditch. Oh, and here’s the instinct argument like in ‘Star Wars.” And here’s Harrison Ford like in ‘Star Wars.’”
Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You are my pain in the ass.
Bedtime for Bonzo
Story: Fifty years earlier, the Earth was attacked by an alien race, the Yadda-Yaddas, but we defeated them because of one man, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who shot his airship straight up their caboose. We’ve been waiting and preparing for the second attack ever since.
Well, “preparing.” As of now, it’s down to Col. Graff (Ford) as the gruff mentor/manipulator, Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) as the empathetic counselor, and a bunch of kids with good hand-eye coordination. Ender, of course, is the best of the bunch. “He’s The One,” Col. Graff says. Major Anderson isn’t so sure. Plus she sees the boy as a boy and not just a soldier. Why does it have to be boys and girls again, rather than, you know, young men and women? Something about teens being more intuitive and fearless. Not to mention the key Hollywood demographic.
By this time, apparently, Earth is so overpopulated that couples are restricted to two kids. Ender’s parents are the exception. They ask for a dispensation and wind up with him. Their first child, Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak), is too violent. Their second child, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), is too empathetic. Ender, the third, is just right.
Games need to be won; he wins them. Tests need to be passed; he does. A boy bullies him so he beats him and beats him and beat him. Because he’s violent like his brother? No, because it was a tactic to end future conflicts. That’s the answer Col. Graff is waiting for. And off Ender goes into military training.
He’s a skinny kid, too smart for his own good, but he wins over the usual group of multi-cultural geeks away from the fat British kid; then he wins over the fat British kid. He has to deal with a big, tough drill sergeant, Dap (Nonso Anozie) and a bullying platoon leader, Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). The question with each is: Do their hard outer shells contain a gooey center? Dap, yes. Bonzo, no.
Ender gathers his Hermione (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) and his various Ron Weasleys (Bean and Alai). The Quidditch here is a zero-gravity shooting game where the goal is to neutralize all of your opponents or make it end-to-end and win. Ender employs the apparently unheard-of tactic of flying across en masse, so the outer portions of the team are neutralized, frozen, but not the inner portions, who make it end-to-end and win. His reward? Bonzo picks a fight with him in the shower. Bonzo winds up in the hospital. This so disturbs Ender he wants out. Or at least he wants to email his sister Valentine.
Me in the audience: Email? We’re still doing that?
Bedtime for 'Ender’s'
There’s boring stuff throughout. Viola Davis is given nothing to do, and she and Harrison Ford have mother-father conversations. “What about his feelings?” she says. “I want him to toughen up,” he says.
When Ender bolts, sorta, Valentine and Graff have this conversation:
Valentine: You just want him to re-enlist.
Graff: I want him to save lives.
Valentine: What about his life?
His life? Aren’t we still worried about the fate of the planet?
More, what about the story? The worst conversations in movies are always the ones urging the principles away from the story. They’re actually kind of an insult to us in the audience. “Excuse me, but I paid to see this story. Could we just continue, please?”
Of course Ender reenlists and commands his teen squad and he meets up with and is trained by Mazer Rackham, who ain’t dead, and who has Maori tattoos on his face. There are battle simulations. In the second-to-last one, he loses. In the last one, he wins and wipes out the enemy’s planet. Yay! Guess what? ’Tweren’t no sim. He really did it. And we get the line I quoted at the beginning of this review.
So how does a boy who feels awful sending a douchebag like Bonzo to the hospital deal with wiping out an entire species? Particularly when he realizes that maybe they weren’t the bad guys after all? That maybe we were the bad guys? He deals with it pretty well, considering. But we’ll find out more in the next movies. If there are more movies. This one isn’t doing particularly boffo at the box office. More like Bonzo.
“Ender’s Game” is the first in a series of novels by Orson Scott Card, who apparently worked where I used to work, University Book Store in Seattle, but who is more famous, or infamous, for his opposition to same-sex marriage. (He has written that homosexuals suffer from “tragic genetic mixups,” among other things.) He lost a “Superman” scripting job because of these views and they may be impacting “Ender’s” box office. Maybe that’s what happens when a man’s stories are set in the future but his mind is set in the past.
I detect no homophobia in “Ender’s,” though. Just same-old same-old.
Movie Review: All Is Lost (2013)
Do all stories about old men and the sea immediately lend themselves to metaphor? It did with Ernest Hemingway and it does with J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) in his new movie, “All is Lost,” starring Robert Redford.
Starring Robert Redford, I should add, and nobody else. You don’t see one other person in the movie. It’s just him and the boat and the sea. There’s hardly any dialogue, or, I suppose, monologue. We get a bit, at the beginning, of the old man reciting lines from a diary. “Thirteenth of July, 4:15 PM,” he says, and then, “I’m sorry.” He says, “I tried.” He gives the movie its title: “All is lost here—except soul and body, or what’s left of them, and a half-day’s rations.” Then he ends as he began:
To whom is he sorry and for what? Exactly what did he try? We don’t find out. We never even find out his name. He thinks, and reacts, and does, but he doesn’t talk much, not even to himself. The lack of words adds to the tension in the movie. It adds to the sense that we’re suffocating, drowning.
That we’re dying.
Eight days earlier, the old man, whom I’ll call Redford, wakes on his 39-foot yacht, the Virginia Jean, to water pouring into the cabin. In the middle of the Indian Ocean, his boat has struck the side of one of those giant metal containers, apparently filled with shoes, that apparently slid off a ship. He extricates himself ingeniously, using an anchor weight on the other side of the ship container, then patches the hole using homemade glue and something resembling gauze. He tests it. It holds. He pumps out the water. He tires, he eats, he sleeps. He watches the sun set and smiles.
But he’s in trouble. The water ruined his electronic equipment so he has no way to navigate, no way to send an S.O.S. And storms are approaching.
I’m a landlubber who isn’t good with his hands, so I’ll leave it to others to say whether Redford makes all the right moves. He seems to. He seems to make smart moves—using everything he has, everything around him—and it doesn’t matter. Storms are coming and he has a hole in the side of his ship.
It was about this point in the movie that I wrote in my notes, “Metaphor for age?” That’s how “All Is Lost” feels. It’s an Ivan Ilyich movie. The world closes in. Options disappear. No matter how smart you are. No matter what you can do with your hands.
The storm comes, the boat overturns, the mast breaks. Worse, the hole in the side is leaking again. Then the boat pitches forward and he’s knocked out. He wakes to water lapping up to the bed in the cabin. It’s waist high and getting higher. The ship groans under the weight. Once again he looks around. Once again he considers his options. They’ve disappeared. They’ve reduced themselves to one: LIFERAFT. Redford gathers what he can before the Virginia Jean sinks into the ocean.
The Lady or the Tiger?
We watch movies rooting for the protagonist—to live, survive, thrive—but some part of me, the critic part of me, remained aware that for this movie to have any meaning Redford has to die.
Even so, it’s tough to hold onto the thought. He reads an old book, “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen,” and calculates he’s entering a shipping lane. He encounters two big ships, and tries to signal them with flares, but they keep going. We don’t see anyone on them, they don’t see him. Sharks begin to gather. He’s slowly dying—of thirst, hunger, exposure. His hands aren’t working. He can do less and less. It’s impressive that Chandor and Redford make this interesting throughout. We keep caring. We keep wondering what he’ll do next. We want him to be rescued even though we know he should die.
Amazingly, Chandor satisfies both of these desires.
Redford’s passed the shipping lane, and hope is gone, along with food and water. Then he sees a .. what is it? A small boat on the horizon? Lit up? He wants to signal it but he’s used up all his flares on the bigger ships. So he creates a fire in an old, cut-out plastic container, and feeds the pages of his book into it. He stands and waves. Will the fire get out of control? Of course it will. Will he go into the water? Of course he will. He tries to stay afloat but he’s too tired, too weak, too old, and he sinks. He’s dying just as—no! The other boat, comes over to his raft, attracted by the flames. It flashes its light, searching the dark waters. And something in him, that drive in him, stirs, and he fights and swims up toward that other boat, and we see a hand reach down to grasp his, and we’re reminded—or at least I was reminded—of Michelangelo’s painting of God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. And in that moment he’s pulled into the light. The End.
And a second later, the light goes on for us.
We can argue all we want about this ending—is this rescue or death?—but I tend to go with the interpretation that gives a deeper meaning. And the latter interpretation, death, actually encompasses both of our desires. We know the old man should die, and he does; but we want him to be rescued, and he is.
This hasn’t been a very good year for movies, and “All Is Lost” isn’t exactly a fun movie to watch. It doesn’t press our pleasure points throughout the way most movies do. But then most movies leave us feeling tawdry and unsatisfied afterwards. “All Is Lost” left me feeling still, yet exhilarated. It left me feeling this much more aware of the inevitability of diminishing options.
Movie Review: Stories We Tell (2013)
“Who fucking cares about our family?”
Joanna Polley says this with a smile at the beginning of “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s documentary about the history of her family, her mother, herself. Answer? We do. We particularly care about Joanna and her siblings. They’re fun to hang with. Joanna is beautiful with a twinkle in her eye, half-brother John Buchan has a more mischievous version of that twinkle, Mark is sweet and sensitive.
Who isn’t much fun? Who is often a silent and annoying presence in Sarah Polley’s doc?
One of the documentary’s central conceits is that we all have our stories, and they often differ, even when we’re talking about the same thing. We all have our perspectives and things get mangled in the telling. They get mangled by being processed through us. This is hardly news.
But the story of Sarah and her family is news—for most of us.
Remember the kids’ book “Are You My Mother?” That’s sort of what this is. The search for who the departed mother is (spiritually) becomes a search for who the father is (biologically).
The mother is Diane, a stage actress and free spirit, whom we first see in old black-and-white footage from, one assumes, a 1950s Canadian TV show. “Who, me?” she asks the camera, half self-conscious, half flirtatious. Yes, you.
She died in 1990, at age 55, when Sarah, her youngest, was 11. She had five kids by two men. Scratch that. Getting ahead of myself.
Her first husband, George Buchan, was the kind of man her parents wanted her to marry—stolid, good postwar job—but she found the life stultifying and they divorced. He got custody of the two kids because she’d had an affair. Apparently it was the first time in Canadian history that a mother hadn’t gotten custody of her own kids. This was 1967.
Was the affair with Michael Polley? The doc doesn’t say. Diane first saw him in a play, “The Caretaker,” and went backstage, and yadda yadda. They were both actors but otherwise opposites. She was excitable, he was calm. She liked people, he liked privacy. “Diane would be doing 10 things at one time,” Michael says. “I’d be doing half of one thing.”
Does Michael say this while reading from his memoir at the recording studio? Sarah has him do that. She makes this old man walk up three flights of stairs and makes him reread certain lines over and over. More: She shows how she makes him reread certain lines over and over. It’s an interesting dynamic—the director-child is father to the old man—but it doesn’t exactly show her in the best of lights. On purpose? Does she need certain lines repeated for us, for emphasis, or does she need her father to repeat certain lines for her, for satisfaction? Cut to: director in close-up, silent. Not telling.
Apparently Toronto, where they lived, is a bit like Seattle—full of cold and distant people—so it was a bit of a reprieve for Diane in the late 1970s when she got a gig performing in a play in Montreal. The title was ironic: “Oh Toronto.” Her marriage with Michael was also reprieved by the gig. He showed up, sparks flew. But she hadn’t been faithful to him there. Then she got pregnant. At 42, she considered an abortion but changed her mind. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Michael tells the off-camera director. “How close we were to you never existing?”
But who was the father? There were jokes, when Sarah was young, and Michael participated in them probably because he didn’t believe in them. “Who do you think your father is this week, Sarah?” they’d ask. In her early 30s, a famous actress herself now, she tries to find out. She asks Geoff, the lead of “Oh Toronto,” but he denies it. She asks Harry Gulkin, one of her mother’s friends at the time, who produced the award-winning film, “Lies My Father Told Me,” if he thought Geoff was her father. No, he says. Why? she asks. Because I’m your father, he says.
Sarah reenacts the scene of the revelation. She dramatizes it. She actually makes it undramatic. Maybe that’s necessary or maybe that’s just her. Then we get Harry’s version of Diane, and Harry’s story of his love affair with Diane, and Harry’s subsequent father-daughter relationship with Sarah. A paternity test is done, emails are read, relatives are met, gumlines are compared.
When the news reaches him, Michael is stunned—he raised Sarah by himself from age 11—but ultimately he takes it with a kind of sad equipoise. The kids, too. John says Mark was disappointed in their mother but in the doc he’s actually rather empathetic. He talks about what a scary scenario it is, having someone else’s kid and hiding that fact from the people you’re closest to. “Look at the mess she got into trying to look like everything was OK,” he says.
It’s such a great story everyone wants to tell it: Michael, Harry, the press. Sarah’s against this. She’s against all of it. Which is probably why she made this doc, which attempts to encompass all of these stories—Michael’s, Harry’s, her siblings'—but which she ultimately controls. “I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us all in this way,” she says. We can.
The ending is clogged with those points of view. Michael tells her the story should be funnier. “You see what a vicious director you are?” he says. Harry tells her the very idea of her documentary, encompassing all of these stories, is false. There has to be a singular point of view, he says. “The story with Diane is only mine to tell,” he says.
This echoes something he’d said earlier, for which I was grateful. People tend to treat love as the pinnacle of human existence—“to love another person is to see the face of God,” is how “Les Misérables” puts it—but I’ve always felt there’s a negative aspect that goes unspoken. Harry speaks it:
When you’re in love like that you become utterly selfish. Nothing that’s happening to anyone else matters at all or is a matter of any consideration. You just wind up sort of focused, intense, wanting to consume the object of your love, and nothing else exists.
“Stories We Tell” is delightful when the focus is on Diane, the mother. It is less so when the focus becomes Sarah, the daughter and documentarian. Maybe 10 minutes could have been excised from the end. Or maybe use these 10 minutes to give Sarah’s siblings, rather than Sarah, more screentime. They’re fun, Sarah less so. Which is itself fascinating. Sarah Polley has made a documentary in which she is the least interesting character. There’s something wonderfully Canadian about that.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard