AFTER EARTH. Friends who attended last Thursday's premiere warned me that this might be the worst movie of the year. I didn't find it quite that bad — not really any damn good, either, but certainly not the worst.
Having missed last week's gala event at the Broadway Cinema, I was able to meet Will Smith's misbegotten brainchild on more neutral terms. Apparently Smith's intent here was to make son Jaden a bona fide action star in one fell swoop. The gambit fails.
M. Night Shyamalan co-writes and directs (from Smith's concept) a story as old as stories. At bottom it's about fathers and sons, mastering fear and confronting the past. But there's a load of space nonsense tacked on.
A thousand years after poisoning Earth's atmosphere and bugging out to some otherworld, humanity finds itself beset by aliens (from where, we never find out; not important, apparently). Said aliens wage war with trained space bears that sense fear. (That's my interpretation; they don't look like bears but are called Ursas.)
General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) rises through the ranks of the Space Rangers largely due to his ability to "ghost," or render himself invisible to the bad beasties by confronting them without fear. His headstrong son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is haunted by memories of his older sister's death at the pincers of an Ursa. He and Dad have a strained relationship.
On the way to an off-planet training exercise, their ship (containing one the killer critters, of course) is forced off-course and crash lands on Earth. Father and son are the only human survivors. Since both of Cypher's legs were broken in the crash, Kitai has to traverse the treacherous landscape alone to retrieve a rescue beacon, working out his daddy issues while battling an army of baboons and befriending a giant bird.
There are moments of genuine emotion here, and I didn't find Jaden's performance nearly as poor as my friends did. In the hands of a better, more emotionally intuitive director he'll probably do perfectly good work someday. But Shyamalan's movies are more about artifice than emotion, and After Earth is no exception. Sadly, even the artifice here is ineffective. The design and execution lack any distinctive, creative vision. And the visual effects look like they came from the bargain bin, which surprised me more than anything else, given the $130 million budget.
The script blatantly telegraphs all its moves, the exposition comes thick and clumsy, and there's never a sense of real danger — a fatal flaw for a would-be thriller. I've seen plenty of movies worse than this, but few of them had this high a profile. PG13. 100m.
WILLOW CREEK. I did manage to weasel my way into Friday's Arcata Theater Lounge screening of Bobcat Goldthwait's found-footage horror ode to Bigfoot. Goldthwait himself was in attendance, along with star Alexie Gilmore. He introduced the movie and followed it up with a slightly disappointing Q-and-A. But his soft-spoken, passionate defense of his movie softened my initial calloused reaction.
There's a lot I didn't particularly like about Willow Creek. Found footage is defined by its inherent limitations. And even though Goldthwait keeps edits to a minimum while bringing a distinctive sensibility, this still looks like a found-footage movie. Which means it looks like every other found-footage movie ever made. The build-up to the climax is slow and largely uneventful, and the events of the final minutes are, sad to say, pretty predictable.
My closeness to the setting might pollute my attitude toward it. Midway through I realized that things I see as mundane (Bigfoot burl statues, Bigfoot burgers, Bigfoot museums) are actually waaaaay out of the ordinary. To any other audience, Willow Creek the town probably seems like it was created whole-cloth from some Bigfoot crackpot's imagination. And maybe it was, but I've been inured to Bigfoot lore, so I was internally shrugging my shoulders, wondering, "What's the big deal?"
But I'd rather not dwell on the negatives. Goldthwait clearly loves making movies and finds ways to make do so without big budgets or name-brand casts. I love the spirit of that, even if I don't love everything he makes. This is what film-art is supposed to be about: passion for the medium and fun in storytelling. I guess Hollywood didn't get the memo. I applaud Goldthwait for his enthusiasm and perseverance, and especially for bringing the movie to our weird little corner of the world.
NOW YOU SEE ME. A disparate group of talented street magicians (Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) gets recruited by a mysterious hooded figure. They concoct an escalating series of stage shows/large-scale heists. Bedraggled FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol newbie Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) are on the case. Thrown into the mix are the magicians' benefactor (Michael Caine) and a well-known magic debunker (Morgan Freeman).
A great cast, clever script and stylish direction all make for a genuinely enjoyable summer movie. Why can't Hollywood make more like this one? Of the current theatrical offerings, this one satisfied me the most. PG13. 116m.
— John J. Bennett
FRANCES HA. Film unseen, this right here is your Journal pick-o-the-week. Writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) crafts a comedic black-and-white ode to the French New Wave with the adorable Greta Gerwig starring as the joyful but flawed title character. R. 86m.
THE INTERNSHIP. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson hope to rekindle their Wedding Crashers chemistry in this comedy that casts them as clueless interns at Google. PG13. 119m.
THE PURGE. Crime and unemployment in America have been nearly eradicated because, on one night per year, all crime is legal. But on one such night, a family must confront the morality of "the purge" up close. Starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady. R. 85m.
THIS IS THE END. This stoner comedy about the apocalypse stars Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill and a bunch more as themselves. Advance screening Tuesday at 7 p.m. R, 107m.
Remember when young surfer Scott Stephens got attacked by a great white last October? Dude punched it in the effing face! And guess what. They made a movie! The locally produced documentary about the attack and subsequent heroic rescue will show at the Arcata Theatre Lounge's Ocean Night this Friday. Doors at 6:30 p.m.
EPIC. A girl gets shrunk to pixie size, giving her a new perspective on the natural world in this CG family flick. PG. 104m.
FAST & FURIOUS 6. The sixth outing has earned the cars-and-crime franchise's best reviews and biggest box office numbers. Part seven's on the way! PG13. 130m.
THE GREAT GATSBY. Baz Luhrmann's frantically schizo adaptation of the literary classic plays like an uninspired soap opera. PG13. 142m.
THE HANGOVER PART III. Time to stop drinkin', fellas. The second sequel starring Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper will leave you with a headache and regrets. R. 100m.
IRON MAN 3. Billionaire playboy/superhero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) must battle panic attacks and terrorist/stereotype The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). PG13. 130m.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. J.J. Abrams injects more action and knowing winks in this second outing in the rebooted series. PG13. 132m.
— Ryan Burns