After Earth: undeserving of it’s flop film status

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Sitting down to watch After Earth, I didn’t expect much. Having heard and read only negative feedback, I was prepared for the worst – a plodding adventure written by Will Smith (produced by him too) with the sole intention of raising his son Jaden to movie star status.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find myself drawn in by the suspense of this action-packed flick and not so pleasantly surprised to realize the majority of mainstream media were so obsessed with the fact Will Smith would have the audacity to costar with his son in a movie helmed by a “failed” director that they couldn’t just enjoy After Earth for what it is.

Prior to this, co-writer and director M. Night Shyamalan had been on a downward spiral that was seemingly out of control. After delivering a trio of great films – including The Sixth Sense – between 1999 and 2002, Shyamalan lost his footing and produced an unbroken string of bad movies. It is natural, I suppose, for one to expect that trend to continue. But it didn’t.

After Earth is not perfect, but it is Shyamalan’s best movie since 2002’s Signs. It is also a compelling science-fiction adventure that works as both a coming-of-age tale and a parable about father-son relationships.

The film is set in a distant future where human beings – having damaged Earth beyond repair – are living on a new world. During a routine military mission, a famous human general named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his 13-year-old boy, Kitai (Smith’s son, Jaden), crash land on the old human home world. Because Earth is unstable and populated by a host of deadly creatures, Kitai and Cypher are in remarkable danger.

As with a lot of semi-enjoyable science-fiction movies, After Earth has points that strain credibility. For instance, the characters possess only crude, close-range weapons despite being advanced enough for intergalactic travel. Focusing on this could ruin one’s appreciation for the picture. But beneath the surface-level problems lies a movie that is both action-packed and emotionally stirring.

Shyamalan does a fine job with pacing, and Will Smith is solid as a hardened military veteran who realizes that he and his son are facing long odds. Jaden Smith is less polished than his father, however, and he speaks in a poorly chosen (and never explained) accent. An annoying aspect, to be sure, but one easily ignored.

After Earth is a film that should have helped Shyamalan regain his stature in the film industry. Unfortunately, the early backlash was so nasty that it may have actually sped his fall. Definitely not out of this world, but an enjoyable film that by no mean deserves its bad reputation.

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Oblivion: an unconvincing mish-mash of science-fiction past and present

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Oblivion boasts a charismatic star and a good band of techy’s… but the script is awful and the director is even worse.  The result? A science-fiction film so dull and unimaginative, you almost feel bad for the bags of money spent on special effects (which are, admittedly, pretty darn impressive, but not nearly enough to be the film’s saving grace).

The year is 2077 and Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a drone technician living far above the clouds in Tower 49 with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They are the last humans left on Earth after it was destroyed by an alien race called the ‘Scavs’. The rest of the human population are on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack and Victoria have been left on Earth to work in the Tower and fix up malfunctioning drones – essentially tying up lose ends before they, also, relocate to Titan.

My main problem with this post-apocalyptic tale is that it borrows too much from previous films. Way too much. It reference’s everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Star Wars (1977), Total Recall (1990) to I Am Legend (2007). Cruise’s own Top Gun (1986) is also given an embarrassingly obvious nod.

Consequently, almost nothing about this film rings true. The relationships between the three main characters are clunky and devoid of emotion and the plot twist towards the end is neither surprising nor stirring.

It’s as if Director Joseph Kosinski was given a handwritten checklist (probably scrawled on the back of a Tesco’s receipt) of what a sci-film must contain and expects us to be satisfied by lumping all these ‘must-haves’ into the same film.

Having said that, it has to be noted that Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is indeed breath-taking and the 80’s synth-style score by M83 is both amusing and inviting. Neither accolades are reasons to actually go and see this disastrous film, but credit where it’s due.

Overall, though Oblivion is amazing to look at, it ultimately leaves you bored and unimpressed. Only two things could make this movie better – different director, or a Morgan Freeman voice-over. The former is an unfortunate reality, but the latter could always be fixed in post-production. Lets start a petition shall we?!

Skyfall: The last rat standing

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The 23rd installment of the Bond franchise, Skyfall, is perhaps the smartest, slickest, most sensational Bond outing yet, with the lord of the spies grappling with changing times, the limitations of his own battered body, and a super-villain who spreads cyber-terror through a digitized network of global computer hackery.

After an audaciously thrilling pre-credit sequence (that reportedly took three months to film) in which Bond pursues a bad guy across the sprawling rooftops of Istanbul on motorcycle before finally coming to blows atop a speeding train, the movie settles into its groove. Someone has stolen a computer drive with information that could compromise the entire British Secret Service, and M (Judi Dench), Bond’s boss, becomes the target of a mysterious psychopath (Javier Bardem) with chillingly personal reasons for his mad rampage.

On a tropical hiatus due to his presumed death, Bond returns to Her Majesty’s service after hearing that M is in danger. But circumstances dictate that he has to reapply to get his old job back. That includes re-passing the fitness test – a harder task than expected, leaving Bond huffing and puffing and nursing his recently banged-up shoulder.

“It’s a young man’s game,” Bond’s reminded by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the bureaucrat in charge of hauling the British espionage division into the 21st century.

Seeing if 007 is up for the job will keep you glued to your seat as the plot shifts from London to Shanghai and finally to the moors of Scotland for an emotionally charged stand-off where Bond must not only defend the empire, but also confront his own past.

Director Sam Mendes integrates sweeping action, solid characters and spectacular scenery to the long line of Bond pop-culture mythology while Craig manages to unearth facets of the Bond character that other actors have simply never found before.

Bad-guy Bardem, so memorable as the creepy killer in No Country For No Men, also works well in his role as soft-spoken sadist Silva – a swishy, blonde-haired demon who taunts Bond with the prospect of England’s old cloak-and-dagger crumbling underneath his new world order of servers and software.

Skyfall manages the hard task of striking a respectful balance with the movies that have gone before, while also taking the character and the franchise into new and exciting territory.

If the next Bond movie is going to be as good as this, then lets just hope we don’t have to wait another four years to see it.

http://youtu.be/6kw1UVovByw

Argo F**k Yourself

Some stories are so unbelievable that they can only be true. Argo is one such story.

The film opens in 1979, in the middle of an Iranian revolution. We see angry crowds swarm outside the American embassy in Iran, viciously protesting for the extradition of recently deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – demanding that he be returned to Iran to hang for his crimes against its people.

After days of rioting outside the gates, the US embassy is eventually overthrown by revolutionaries and the inhabitants held hostage. Six American diplomatic staff evade capture , however, and take shelter in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. If discovered, they face brutal and public execution

Back home at the White House, the administration of President Jimmy Carter is running out of time. The best man available for the worst job imaginable is Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA agent who specialises in “exfiltration” – retrieving ordinary US citizens from extraordinary situations all over the world.

Mendez has an idea and, by his own admission, it’s a longshot. After much deliberation, the proposal gets a green light, largely due to the words of Bryan Cranston’s character – “It is the best bad idea we have”.

The Mendez pitch is this: he will travel to Tehran posing as a Canadian film producer. Once there, he will persuade the newly installed (and radically militant) Iranian regime that the six stowaways are his crew scouting Middle East locations for an upcoming sci-fi production.

There are multiple passports to be forged, and a lot of fast talking to be done. One minor slip-up, and everyone dies. Including himself.

Affleck’s third feature film as a director, Argo is a taut, well-paced suspense thriller with so much palpable tension that it has you on the edge of your seat.

The screenplay (based on a book penned by Mendez) is the key, relaying tons of information while ably carrying in excess of 100 different speaking parts. Sometimes it sticks to the facts. Sometimes it embellishes them. Nevertheless, you will be hanging on each and every word.

The acting of the ensemble cast – led strongly by Affleck – is faultless. No one steals a scene. Everyone picks one up, runs with it a while, and hands it to someone else.

All in all, Argo is a stunning achievement in direction, screenwriting, acting and filmmaking. If this movie doesn’t bag at least one Oscar, I’ll eat my hat.

Looper: Keeping it simple

Back in 2006, writer/director Rian Johnson made an exceptional début with Brick, a low-budget thriller set in a southern California high school featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenage private eye.

Six years later, with the disappointingly mediocre The Brothers Bloom proving but a minor bump in the road, Johnson is back on course with Gordon-Levitt in time-travelling action flick Looper.

The term ‘Looper’ refers to a hitman who kills people sent back in time from the future (so that there is no dead body as evidence). The term is apt because the assassins operate under the knowledge that they will eventually have to ‘close their loop’ by killing their future selves.

The film centres on a particularly efficient Looper called Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is saving up enough money for a retirement in Paris. His plans are shattered, however, when he fails to close his loop allowing his future self (Bruce Willis) to get the better of him.

Throughout the film, writer/director Johnson cleverly evades the complications that come with time travel. Willis’s character even states, “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit.” Viewers who want to see a true science fiction film may be disappointed by this (the time machine, resembling an old-fashioned scuba diver mask, is also rather lackluster), but the film proves to be perfectly entertaining and well-made overall.

Cinematographically, the film is a work of art. Motifs like close-ups of cigarette smoke and ticking clocks are intricately placed, the camera work while Gordon-Levitt is on an acid trip is breathtaking, and the details necessary to maintain consistency between the future and current Joe are painstakingly accurate. In a diner scene, for example, we see a newly injured, bandaged ear on Gordon-Levitt… and a newly disfigured ear on Willis.

Another near flawless aspect is the casting. Veterans Bruce Willis and Jeff Daniels bring their usual prowess to the screen, while Paul Dano and Emily Blunt successfully transform into roles unlike any they have played before.

The main acting highlight, however, comes in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who supposedly spent hours in make-up having prosthetics applied so that he would look more like Bruce Willis. Though his contrived voice and strangely perfect eyebrows are distracting at first, he is able to capitalize on the disguise and adopt a convincing tough guy persona.

Overall, Looper is the proof we needed that originality hasn’t died in Hollywood. It also reinforces the fact that Sci-fi movies can be smart (Gattaca), imaginative (2001: A Space Odyssey), or just plain exciting (Dredd).

With Looper, we get the pleasure of a sci-fi film that does all three, and does them masterfully.

Ted: offensive comedy at its very best

Coming to Irish cinemas next week we have McFarlane’s Ted, a goofy, quirky and infectiously funny bromance about an ordinary guy and his extraordinary friend.

Sick of being the kid who can’t make friends, eight-year-old John Bennett wishes that his teddy bear were real. In true fairytale fashion, complete with shooting stars and gap tooth smiles, little John Bennett’s wish comes true. At first Ted the talking teddy bear is a celebrity, appearing on television chat shows and loved by parents and children the world over. All too soon however, in the words of Seth McFarlen “everybody stopped giving a shit”.

Fast forward 27 years and we see John (Mark Wahlberg) desperately trying to juggle his girlfriend (Mila Kunis) and his best friend (Ted) as they share an apartment in the big city of Boston. Hilarity ensues.

From the very beginning, you can tell this is a Seth McFarlen production. His very unique, very offensive, style of comedy is both hilarious and slightly awkward. Fans of Family Guy (McFarlen’s hit TV animation series) will love it unconditionally, but a more reserved audience will hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. As such, Ted has, predictably enough, garnered some pretty mixed reviews.

Personally, I absolutely loved it. I thought it was original, random and deliciously unapologetic. Some of the jokes were a little childish and awkward, but these were few and far between. Overall, it was an extremely enjoyable movie with a good few sidesplittingly funny moments that you just can’t help but laugh at.

If you think it’s your kind of humor, then it probably is. But if you can’t find the funny side to jokes about racism, drug abuse and having sex with vegetables, you should probably give it a miss.

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