FRESH POUR: After Earth (2013) / Now You See Me (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

After Earth / dir. M. Night Shyamalan / Columbia Pictures

hr_After_Earth_poster-2The career of M. Night Shyamalan has certainly been interesting – since his early accolades in the late 90s with the horror hit The Sixth Sense, his unique talents have seemed to take an even slide downward, each film being worse than the last. This culminated in 2010’s execrable The Last Airbender, which was a thoroughly unwatchable mess of a movie that really showcased Shyamalan’s limitations as a director; it really felt like he tried to do too much too quickly. 2013’s After Earth has already been set up for failure; everyone’s sick of Shyamalan now, and the perceived nepotism/Scientology undertones to the behind-the-scenes and in-text story of the movie has brought the movie to its knees. With these expectations in mind, I went into the theater all but knowing I would hate After Earth.

What do you know? It wasn’t bad.

Much like March’s Oblivion, After Earth features characters attempting to survive a ravaged Earth. This time, an estranged father-son duo (Will and Jaden Smith) from a human colony crash-land on long-abandoned, human-hostile Earth; in the crash, Will’s character, General Cypher Raige (yes you read that right) is gravely injured, leaving his untested son Kitai (Jaden) to brave the 30 miles to the beacon on the broken-off tail section of their ship. Along the way, Kitai must learn to deal with his guilt over his sister’s death, his anger towards his absentee father, his cowardice and the many new creatures that inexplicably inhabit this new Earth (including a captured hostile alien that also escaped the crashed ship).

The story is straightforward, but there’s a simplicity in that concept that makes the movie work. Forget the fact that the new Earth’s environment makes no sense at all (why would an ecosystem free of humans for a millennia evolve “to kill humans”?), as well as the really weird way everyone speaks (Shyamalan decided on a strange Foghorn-Leghorn accent for future people that both Smiths and the rest of the small cast have to muddle through at times): all of that is secondary to the fairly effective and gorgeous trudge of Kitai through the jungles and forests of future Earth.

All of this is in service to the slim, economical story of a boy learning to grow up and a father learning to communicate with his son, combined with a futuristic man-versus-nature story. Will and Jaden perfectly fine here, if not mindblowing: they’re a bit stilted and distant, of course, but this seems to be a product of the futuristic society they’ve built up (and Cypher’s distance and coldness toward his son is a plot point in the film). The filmmaking does a lot of work around the actors; it’s kind of Expressionistic in this way, most of the film consisting of Kitai silently stalking around future Earth and Cypher assessing his own medical situation. I found that very interesting, and the film’s 100 minute runtime means the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. The metaphors are completely unsubtle – there are paralleled scenes at beginning and end involving crippled officers saluting those who saved them that feel incredibly stilted, for instance – but since the story is so simple and allegorical, the lack of subtlety feels right at home and doesn’t jar.

The production design is one of the film’s best strengths; I loved the slightly-organic look of all the future technology, especially Kitai’s Ranger suit (which changes colors depending on hazards) and the multi-purpose expandable Cutlass that is their chief weapon. James Newton Howard’s scores always work well in even the worst Shyamalan movies, and his slightly melancholy work in After Earth follows that tradition. Even Shyamalan’s often weird direction works here, as the stiltedness and odd pacing makes the setting (and these people) even more alien. In short, it’s actually one of Shyamalan’s better films; while that’s not saying much, it’s also not ”the next Battlefield Earth” as Internet hyperbole is claiming. It’s an okay movie, and will even surprise you at times, as long as you keep an open mind about the director and stars.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for After Earth:
1) Drink whenever Kitai (Jaden Smith) unsheathes his weapon
2) Drink every time Cypher (Will Smith) sees a new plot point on his scanner
3) Drink for every new creature/animal you see
Finish Your Drink When:
Cypher Raige (yup, his real name) says, “Good boy.”

Now You See Me / dir. Louis Leterrier / Summit Entertainment

NowYouSeeMeFullsizePostergroup1Heist films and capers are some of my favorite kinds of films: there’s an architecture to the job, the eclecticism of the disparate group of people pulling off the heist and their unique roles in the gang, and there’s usually an energy to it that I appreciate very much on a surface level. In the case of Now You See Me, director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk) gives us a caper by way of magicians – think Ocean’s Eleven by way of The Prestige. Here, the game is this: a cadre of expert magicians (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) begin pulling off a series of elaborate magic tricks with the aim of redistributing money from their rich targets (banks, benefactors, safe manufacturers) to the public. While the film leads us to believe that we’ll be following the Four Horsemen throughout the film, as we focus on them in the beginning, the emphasis shifts quickly to grizzled cop Dylan Rhodes (a committed Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Vargas (the ever-so-lovely Melanie Laurent) as they attempt to catch the sleight-of-hand masters before they rob again.

The film’s mantra is “Look closely, because the more you think you know, the less you’ll actually see”; this seems to translate into the film’s execution as well. As a film about magic, the movie’s ostensibly an illusion about illusions; there’s some gold to be mined here, but the film instead opts for shallow chasing and scenes of Ruffalo furrowing his brow at people. Though Now You See Me attempts an ensemble cast (and what an ensemble it has gathered; I love these actors), the film’s focus on Ruffalo as the main character means that most of the other characters are given short shrift, even the Horsemen themselves. Meanwhile, we get occasional scenes with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to inject gravitas into the proceedings, as the Horsemen’s wealthy benefactor and a man obsessed with debunking magic tricks, respectively – it all doesn’t add up to much.

Director Louis Leterrier’s style is, sadly, all over the place in this film: Leterrier will call back to his Transporter days in the scenes where he has Ruffalo chasing down Horsemen on foot and fighting them, while most other scenes are filmed in a lazy, swooping camera move that gets disorienting and boring after awhile. Happily, the cinematography is decently crisp, and Brian Tyler continues to impress me with his Lalo Schifrin-inspired score here – it’s nothing great, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

 All of this trickery, of course, depends on the punchline for the magic trick, which is revealed in such a hamfisted way (exposited to Morgan Freeman in what looks like a castle dungeon – is this supposed to be a real jail?) as to be laughable. Mark Ruffalo, the protagonist of the film and the one person who doesn’t really believe in magic, is revealed to be the true puppet master all along, a reveal that is absolutely mind-boggling to the point of nonsense. While you certainly don’t see this ‘abracadabra’ coming, upon further inspection it renders the narrative thrust of the movie moot. Why did we bother following Ruffalo through all of his frustration and desperation if he was actually in control the entire time? Why would he bother doing all this stuff to avenge his father ? (Oh yeah, it’s disappointing to hear that it’s not the assumed-dead magical mastermind constantly alluded to throughout the film, it’s just his grieving son.) Did he become a cop just to do all this? Is The Eye just a magical carousel, and if not where do the Horsemen go? These questions and more abound. Furthermore, it sours the Occupy-tinged undertone of the Robin-Hood magic heists, since they’re not just stealing to avenge the poor and disenfranchised, but performing financial vengeance-by-proxy of the people who got his father killed. It feels cheap, and it is cheap.

**END SPOILERS**

That being said, until the twist, I can’t say I wasn’t entertained – the cast all know what they’re doing, the film clips along at a good pace, the action is great, etc. The Horsemen’s  setpieces are dazzling, if almost too fantastic; nothing is explained about the futuristic technology given to the Horsemen to accomplish their tricks. This stuff doesn’t exist now; I would think that would be a bigger deal than a revenge plot. As it stands, it’s a very mild like for me; it’s only the dumb ending and some sloppy direction that takes me out of this otherwise very fine filmic diversion.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Now You See Me:
1) Drink whenever someone does a magic trick (big or small)
2) Drink every time Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) expresses skepticism about magic
3) Drink for every long, swooping camera move
Finish Your Drink When:
Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) says, “Do you want to see a real magic trick?”

Next week, Clint takes a look at the Ethan Hawke dystopian home-invasion thriller The Purge, as well as the Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn Google comedy The Internship!

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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