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After Earth

Now You See Me

Frances Ha

June 6, 2013

After Earth (**)

To say that After Earth is a vanity project for actor Will Smith is, I guess, stating the obvious. The elder Smith stars in the film alongside his son, Jaden, and the story is also credited to Smith whom it has been noted hand picked filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan to write and direct the thing. The only reason I bring to bear the fact that Will Smith is involved in so many aspects of After Earth is because it injects a certain level of inevitability into the proceedings. To elaborate, let us ponder as to whether anyone would honestly believe that Smith would let his son die onscreen in a product that his hands are all over, and I think you see where I’m going with this. Of course I’m digressing so let me get to the subject at hand: whether the film has merit.

On the positive side of things I will state that it’s probably the best film we’ve seen from M. Night Shyamalan in at least a decade, although that’s faint praise.

When one takes into account such recent and misguided cinematic blunders on Shymalan’s watch as The Last Airbender, Lady in the Water and The Happening, the expectation level tends to be lowered a tad. Still, After Earth is not the worst thing one might find on the director’s resume but I doubt it will lead to any high profile gigs in the future unless it miraculously does box office wonders. In fact, how Shyamalan is still allowed to helm films of this caliber boggles the mind, with the glory days of such films as The Sixth Sense and Signs long behind him, but that’s another subject for another day. Still, I can’t help but think ‘my, how the mighty have fallen.’

The plot of After Earth revolves around big Smith and little Smith getting stranded on an uninhabitable earth, 1,000 years into the future after their ship has crash lands there.

Will & Jaden Smith in After Earth

Poppa Smith is hampered by a broken leg after the crash and sends little Smith to retrieve a flare from the other half of the ship, which is too far of a distance to travel for the elder Smith with his bum appendages. Along the way, the Jaden Smith character must evade all sorts of creatures which prey upon the human sense of fear, leading to many over the top, CGI-enhanced action sequences.

The conclusion of the film is foregone and the proceedings never rise above those of a video game but those with extremely low expectations may find something to like here, although it’s true that everyone involved has done better work in days gone by. The problem is that After Earth isn’t bad enough to really hate and nowhere good enough to embrace, leaving one with a feeling of emptiness and just enough hatred to spew venom. It’s just a ho-hum affair all the way around that fails to get off the ground, no pun intended.
Now You See Me (***)

Now You See Me, a film utilizing the idea that a master of the powers of magic could be the perfect criminal counterpart, is the kind of summer film that moviegoers could use more of. It’s cleverly constructed and easily lends itself to discussion once the experience of seeing it has come and gone, something that can’t be said for the majority of what is littering multiplex screens these days. It fits into that genre known as the ‘puzzle film,’ along the same line as The Usual Suspects, and will keep you guessing all the way to its conclusion, which I doubt even the most jaded film goer will have an easy time figuring out. It’s a nice counterpoint to a sea of sameness that studios usually trot out during summer on a yearly basis.

In the opening scenes of the picture we are introduced to four magicians with varying talents: a mentalist (Woody Harrelson) who uses his prowess for financial gain; a flamboyant master of illusion (Isla Fisher) of the Vegas variety; a pickpocket (Dave Franco), and a deft and impressive magician (Jesse Eisenberg) who uses magic in the more traditional sense.

The cast of the very fine Now You See Me

The four are summoned by an unknown fifth person to come together as a team in order to pull off a series of heists. Just who that fifth person might be is part of the film’s mystery, leading to no end of frustration for both a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) attempting to solve the case and a television personality (Morgan Freeman) specializing in debunking the art of magic. How it all plays out is one of the treats of the film and is better experienced than ruined by any further reiterations of the plot.

Now You See Me is directed by Louis Letterier, who directed The Transporter (1 and 2), Clash of the Titans and The Incredible Hulk. The French director has  been accused by some cinephiles as being a lightweight but I believe he has proven himself here. I think this is his best film, proving that when given the right material—in this case a script by proven screenwriters Boaz Yakin and Ed Solomon, along with newcomer Edward Ricourt—etterier has the chops to get things done in an effective manner. The film moves along at a nice pace and has just enough character development to keep us involved without. It’s nice to have a film that actually requires the participation of the audience and doesn’t let us down during the denouement. Now You See Me is that kind of film.

Frances Ha (* 1/2)

Frances Ha (Greta Gerwig)—her last name is really Halliday but has to be shortened in order to fit on her mailbox—is a twenty-seven year old who, strangely, doesn’t seem to have matured beyond the age of thirteen or so. Or maybe I’m so out of touch that I don’t realize that all twentysomethings are like this. I sure hope not, but I digress.

Frances lives with her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Police frontman, Sting) and the two smoke cigarettes on their fire escape, run through the streets holding hands as if they were still in elementary school, sleep together like sisters and gripe about their love life. When Frances finally gets an offer to move in with her current boyfriend she turns him down in order to not disappoint Sophie but then Sophie turns right around, sells out and moves on with her rich, dull boyfriend, leaving Frances in the lurch. That’s gratitude for ya, I suppose.

All of this sends Frances’ life into a tailspin since she can’t continue to afford living in her current apartment without Sophie. We get title cards that show us all of Frances’ varying addresses as she moves from place to place while she tries to ‘figure things out.’

Gerwig in Frances Ha

We get to see such varying wonders as Frances urinating in public on railroad tracks while she constantly complains about wanting to be a dancer, appearing to be only vaguely concerned about actually putting in any effort to achieve her goal. She seems be more interested in doing such questionable things as acquiring a credit card and flying to Paris for a two day vacation, sleeping through most of said vacation while there, visiting her parents in Sacramento and hanging out at her alma mater in Poughkeepsie. If this sounds like someone you’d want to spend ninety minutes with you may have found your film. I can’t say that I’m that guy. Frankly, I’m tired of films about self-entitled twentysomethings in the vein of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, another film whose lead character was grating to no end, and this one is a trip to that well-worn well.

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach, who directed and co-wrote the film with Gerwig, his off-screen lover, is at the height of pretentiousness here. Even his use of black and white photography, one of the few things I actually liked about the thing, is questionable. Frances Ha is one slog of a film that leads to nothing. None of the characters seem to grow or change and nothing is resolved, with the film being horribly paced, to boot. Baumbach’s grating editing style, which leaves some scenes with a feeling of abruptness, does the film no favors. In short Frances Ha is Baumbach’s most unsatisfying film, all the more shameful when one takes into account that this is the first film he’s directed in three years. After his last film, Greenberg, which I enjoyed heartily, this is a real letdown.

After Earth & Now You See Me are playing at the Carmike in Hickory and everywhere in NC.

Frances Ha is playing at the Regal Manor Twin in Charlotte.



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