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Posts Tagged ‘Will Smith’

Some of my friends refuse to believe me when I say I’ve never seen the Disney animation of Aladdin. It’s true: didn’t see Aladdin, didn’t see Beauty and the Beast, didn’t see Little Mermaid. Of all of those 90s cartoons the only one I caught was Lion King, and that was because someone gave me free tickets to it. My whole attitude to the Disney Aladdin may in fact be coloured by the fact that, in November 2005, I found myself obliged to watch ‘A Whole New World’, one of the big production numbers of the film, performed on live TV by Peter Andre and Jordan. No living soul could remain unaffected by such an experience.

Given this baleful connection between Jordan and Disney’s Aladdin, I suppose there is something of an irony that the corporation’s latest attempt to farm money from their back catalogue by updating the charming animations with live action and CGI, which is of course a new version of Aladdin, was actually filmed there. It’s a funny old world sometimes, as well as a whole new one. Although possibly not in this movie, where much of the humour is either laboured or rather sentimental.

The fact that Guy Ritchie’s film is likely to define perceptions of this story for another generation causes me a mild pang, for it persists in relocating the story of Aladdin from ancient China to somewhere generically middle-eastern, and furthermore ruthlessly scythes Widow Twankey and Wishee-Washee from the plot (they don’t even have the bit where they divide up the audience for the singalong near the end). Instead we just meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud), an improbably well-groomed small-time crook and homeless person, who makes the acquaintance of sultan’s daughter Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has some rather anachronistic ideas about emancipation and self-empowerment. Things get more complicated when…

Oh, come on, Constant Reader! Do I really need to describe the plot of Aladdin? It’s from A Thousand and One Nights (albeit somewhat unrecognisably), one of the most famous collections of folk-tales in history! There’s an evil vizier/magician (Marwan Kenzari). There’s a cave. There’s a lamp. There’s a genie (Will Smith). There are a finite number of wishes to be granted. There are show-tunes, power-ballads and dance routines. You know how this one goes, I would imagine.

Well, if nothing else it is less horrid than Tim Burton’s baffling version of Dumbo, but once again the whole thing is somewhat hobbled by the fact that it is essentially a recreation of the 1992 animation rather than an attempt to do something genuinely new and creative with the story: in addition to all the required beats from the folk-tale, the film is also obliged to include all the bits people will remember from the cartoon, as well. It even attempts to look like a cartoon, with a garish colour-palette and cinematography, although the list of things which seem to have influenced this new film is a long one: it is a peculiar chimerical beast made up of panto plotting, blockbuster CGI, Broadway show tunes, MOR power-ballads, and Bollywood dance routines. No doubt the film is expecting to receive plaudits for ethnically-appropriate casting (not that anyone is actually Chinese), although I do note that the closer a character is to the centre of the story, the greater the chance that they speak exclusively in an American English idiom.

Frankly, I found it rather hard going, not really being in the target audience – I only went because we normally go to the cinema on a Tuesday night and my friends preferred this to yet another trip to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters (yes, I know; but I try to be kind to them anyway). It does acquire a certain energy and sense of fun once Will Smith turns up, but on the whole you could easily dismiss this as very bland, rather vacuous stuff.

I did notice, however, that beneath all the froth and nonsense there is a film putting across an unexpectedly rigorous, if somewhat flawed thesis about the nature of power, particularly as it relates to the citizens of traditional hierarchical societies. All the major characters are to some extent defined by their social mobility, or lack of it: none of them, initially at least, have any prospect of changing their station in the manner they would prefer. Aladdin is going to stay on the street forever, Jafar is not going to ascend the throne due to his lack of the blood royal, Jasmine (being a woman) is not going to be allowed to rule as she would like, and the Genie’s whole peculiar existence is defined by some rather arbitrary rules (you could argue that the Genie is in fact emblematic of the whole subtext of Aladdin).

Obviously this is a cause of frustration for all of them, and when Aladdin and Jafar decide to do something about it, it is in the same way: the use of magical (and thus unnatural, i.e., outside the bounds of conventional society) power to change their station in life. (The hero-and-villain-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is a common one, but it’s presented here in an unusually systematic fashion.) What’s notable is that neither of them is ultimately successful in this, and the changes that do result are more due to their essential characters than whatever magic they have managed to lay their hands on. The deeper subtext of the film is that power itself is an illusion at best, a trap at worst: we see Aladdin symbolically represented as a puppet of the Genie, an inversion of the supposed power relationship here. By the end of the film it has been made clear that the degree of power a person nominally wields is in inverse proportion to their ability to actually make free use of it – the Genie, whose powers seem to border on omnipotence (with a couple of exceptions), actually has the least control over his own existence, while it is the homeless Aladdin who is closest to being actually free.

And yet the film is ultimately rather conservative (perhaps this shouldn’t be a great surprise), choosing to ignore its own thesis in the closing stages and present a happy ending in which the characters do manage to achieve some fairly improbable changes in the previously-monolithic status quo of the film. The root cause of all the suffering and conflict in this story is the existence of the strictly hierarchical society, and therefore for the film to have a truly happy ending one would expect to see the old power structures torn down and a new model of society in some kind of nascent form – but no. There are some specific and not especially significant reforms, primarily that Jasmine gets to be the Sultana (one might describe this as her raisin d’etre). So in the end, as I said, the film is ultimately flawed in how it implements its sociological and political analysis. But some of the songs are quite catchy anyway.

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You usually know what you’re going to get when you watch a David Ayer movie; he’s that kind of film-maker. It’s going to be about guys, being masculine together, usually under trying conditions. Even when there are women in the film they basically act fairly masculine too. It may be that the guys in question are cops (as in Training Day, or SWAT, or End of Watch) or the crew of a tank (as in Fury) or super-powered mercenaries (as in Suicide Squad) – the general emphasis of things is more or less the same. Given that Ayer seems to be a reliably safe pair of hands, with several LA-set cop movies under his belt, you can understand why one of the world’s leading film and TV streaming companies (the name of which rhymes with Get Clicks) would get him on board for its most ambitious original project yet, which is yet another LA-set cop movie. Albeit one with a pretty big difference, as we shall see. The movie in question is called Bright.

Will Smith plays Daryl Ward, a somewhat careworn Los Angeles beat cop, coming back on duty after being shot in the line of duty. He blames his injury largely on his inexperienced partner, Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton). Ward doesn’t want Jacoby as his partner, but is uncomfortable with the openly racist attitudes of the higher-ups in the LAPD towards the rookie – for Jacoby is the first Orc to serve as a police officer in the city.

Yup, this is one of those movies. Bright‘s version of the USA is truly multi-racial, with Humans, Orcs, Elves, and other races living side-by-side (there also seem to be Centaurs, Dragons, and Fairies, but the Dwarves and Hobbits seem to be being held back for the sequel). Two thousand years earlier, the Orcs served a dreaded Dark Lord in his attempt to conquer the world, which still fuels prejudice and tension in the present day.

Well, the awkward relationship between Ward and Jacoby soon becomes the least of the cops’ problems, as they stumble upon the scene of a multiple murder and encounter Tikka (Lucy Fry), a traumatised young Elf. Also on the scene is a magic wand, which in Bright’s milieu is the equivalent of a suitcase full of heroin combined with a nuclear warhead. Soon enough Ward and Jacoby are being sought by corrupt LA cops, agents of the US Department of Magic, gangbangers both Human and Orc, and a cult of evil Elves determined to bring about the return of the Dark Lord. But our guys decide not to be chicken when it comes to Tikka, even if it seems highly unlikely they will survive the night…

David Ayer usually writes his own movies, but not this time: Bright is from the pen of Max Landis, previously the scribe of Chronicle, amongst others (he was also involved in the Power Rangers movie, though his script was ultimately not used). I’m not quite sure what to make of the main idea behind Bright, mainly because it manages to be soaringly high-concept and yet curiously unoriginal (the Shadowrun game franchise came up with the notion of fantasy and mythological beings living openly in a modern or near-future US over a quarter of a century ago).

There are a couple of other things about the script of Bright, too, and they’re both to do with the way the film mashes up pure fantasy with gritty realism. Personally, I think there’s good fantasy, where there’s some kind of thought-through underpinning to the whole thing (geography, metaphysics, history, that sort of thing), and – not to put too fine a point on it – bad fantasy, where the writer just makes up anything that takes their fancy and doesn’t worry about whether there’s any coherent basis to it. Bright is, to be blunt, bad fantasy – not just in its talk of magic wands and ‘brights’ (the gifted individuals who can use the wands), but in the simple basis of the story. It’s not just that this is a city which kind of resembles present-day Los Angeles in present-day America. We are informed it really is LA: and there are further references to places and events and things like Russia, the Alamo, and Uber. The world is wildly different in some ways and completely recognisable in others, not because this makes any sense but just because it’s the kind of movie they want to do.

Also, the moment I saw the trailer for Bright I found myself thinking, ‘Hmmm, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes moment incoming’ – that being a movie with an interesting approach to genre-based social commentary, as it essentially restages scenes from the civil rights struggle with apes in the role of African Americans. The allegorical coding in Bright is, if anything, even less subtle: Orcs live in the projects, wear sports clothing and jewellery, run in gangs, and so on. Nevertheless, just so everyone gets the point, Smith gets a line early on about how ‘Fairy lives don’t matter’.

The problem is that none of this sledgehammer social commentary seems to be there to any good purpose, unless Ayer and Landis really are suggesting that African Americans are physically powerful but a bit slow (etc.). I doubt that; it just seems like everyone thought this was a cool idea for a movie and didn’t worry too much about what any of it might mean, or indeed whether it made sense at all.

Now, I have been quite harsh about Bright so far, and the film has generally been picking up less glowing reviews than Get Clicks might have been hoping for (this hasn’t stopped them ordering a sequel, though). However, provided you lower your expectations and put your brain in low gear, there is still some entertaining stuff going on here. Smith and especially Edgerton give rather good performances as the co-leads (whatever its failings as a piece of fantasy, Bright holds together pretty well as a buddy thriller), Ayer directs the action with his usual aplomb, and Noomi Rapace is not bad as the chief Elf villain (finally, the role those cheekbones were born for). When it’s not being ponderously serious, there are some quite good lines, such as when Jakoby tries to persuade Ward they are in the midst of prophetically-foreseen events: ‘We’re not in a prophecy, we’re in a stolen Toyota,’ Will Smith snaps back. It still takes quite a while to properly get going, and arguably outstays its welcome a little too, but hardly objectionably so.

There’s definitely a sense in which Bright is still recognisably a David Ayer movie, but if anything the thing to take away from it (for the director if no-one else) is that Ayer should stick to writing his own scripts in future. It certainly works better as a guys-in-extremis thriller than it does as an actual fantasy movie, simply because it’s all about surface, with no thought given to anything else. I get the sense that Bright exists simply because a lot of people went ‘That sounds cool!’ and thought that was a good enough reason to make to movie. The actual movie strongly suggests that coolness can only take you so far, and no further.

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I’m hearing a lot of talk about ‘superhero fatigue’ at the moment – the notion that somehow people are going to get sick of seeing a new comic-book movie come out, on average, about once every two months. Hmmm, well – having lived through many years when there were no decent superhero movies to speak of, once every two months strikes me as being just about right. You’ll notice I said ‘decent’, because the likes of Steel, Catwoman, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace have always been with us. Provided the standard stays high I see no reason why people will stop watching.

That’s a big assumption, though. Quite what dark art Marvel Studios have employed to produce so many movies in a row without a significant misstep I don’t know, but – and I’m aware this assertion is going to be met with bared teeth by some people – if you want to see how this sort of thing probably shouldn’t be done, you can always take a look at DC’s recent movie output, for they haven’t released an entirely unproblematic film since The Dark Knight Rises, four years ago. Still, you can’t fault their determination, for they’re at it again with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

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It sounds like a winning premise: with Superman indisposed (i.e., and spoiler alert, dead) following the end of Batman Vs Superman, and Batman and Wonder Woman off the scene, the US government is concerned about who’s going to pick up the slack if another giant alien monster goes on a rampage. The solution comes from ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – get a bunch of the villains previously defeated by Batman and other superheroes, fit them with remote controlled explosives to ensure compliance, and deploy them as a deniable task force of superpowered operatives.

The collection of nutters thus assembled is led by top soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and includes ace marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), human flamethrower El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), atavistic cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), immortal sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), and the Australian villain Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), whose main superpower is being a ridiculous national stereotype.

Others in the US government are uneasy with the idea of entrusting national security to ‘witches, gangbangers and crocodiles’ (they forget to mention ridiculous national stereotypes and people whose only apparent superpower appears to be acting like a homicidal pole dancer), but soon enough a crisis erupts with a giant supernatural entity on the loose in Midway City (Hawkman has clearly been clearly slacking off) and the Squad are rushed into action. But there is inevitably a wrinkle – the Joker (Jared Leto, giving us a very Frank Miller-esque take on the character) wants his girlfriend back, and is drawing up plans to get involved himself…

Is it overstating things to say that DC’s movie division seems to wobble from one crisis to another in a perpetual state of omni-shambles, with virtually every news story about them featuring the words ‘urgent talks are in progress’? Well, maybe. But there were apparently heated discussions after the relative underperformance of Batman Vs Superman, and even before that suggestions that this film was being reshot and reedited to give it more of chance of hooking the audience that made Deadpool such an unexpectedly big hit.

It certainly has the whiff about it of a film that has gone through extensive surgery in the editing suite: key plot beats are critically underdeveloped, and the structure of the film is odd and lumpy, often at the expense of the storytelling. Most of the Squad are given fairly detailed introductions, especially if they’re played by an A-list star, but then just as they’re about to go off on the mission, a brand new member turns up with no introduction at all (and a frankly rubbish superpower) and you just think ‘This guy is clearly just here as cannon fodder who will die in the next ten minutes’ – and he does! Not that the film couldn’t do with losing a few characters – super-obscure superhero Katana turns up, played by Karen Fukuhara, and does pretty much nothing at all. (Fukuhara says she wants to ‘explore the character’s back-story’ in the sequel, and it’s easy to see why: she has virtually no back-story here and is essentially just another national stereotype.) You could even argue that the film would be significantly improved with the Joker completely excised, for he has nothing to do with the main plot and just capers about bafflingly on the fringes of the film.

No chance of that, of course, for DC are clearly fit to bust, such is their desire to get their universe up on the screen in the mighty Marvel manner. I have to say I think there’s something deeply weird about this movie being made at all, at least now. This version of the DC universe hasn’t done a standalone Batman or Flash movie so far, and yet they seem convinced there is an audience dying to see a film about second- and third-string Batman and Flash villains in which the heroes themselves barely appear. I suspect the Joker is probably the only major character in this movie which a mainstream cinema-goer will even have heard of, which is probably why he’s in it.

Then again, there probably is an audience dying to see this kind of film, it’s just a very small audience of comics fanatics. One of the key moments in the development of the modern comic book movie was the failure of Batman and Robin in 1997, which the studio apparently decided was not because it was simply a bad movie (to be fair, I still think it’s better than Batman Forever), but because it managed to alienate the core comic book fan audience. This audience is lovingly courted at great length these days, and you could argue that with Suicide Squad we see a movie made solely to gratify it, and which has started to forget that the mainstream audience is the one which actually turns a film into a genuine blockbuster hit.

Still, given an arguably less-promising premise than that of Batman Vs Superman, David Ayer does an impressive job of keeping the film accessible and entertaining, even if it feels more like a handful of really good moments scattered through a rather generic and predictably murky superhero film. Will Smith earns his top billing, bringing all his star power to bear as Deadshot (the film predictably favours Smith over some of the others), while no doubt Margot Robbie’s game performance will win her many fans. Too many of the other squad members are one-dimensional – I would have liked to see rather more of Captain Boomerang in particular, but they seem to have realised such a wacky character is a terrible fit for a film striving desperately to be dark and edgy, and he barely throws a boomerang or gets referred to by his codename throughout.

In the end, Suicide Squad is a bit of a mess on virtually every level: it’s arguably a bad idea to do this movie at all at this point in time, and its structure and storytelling are both rather suspect, to say nothing of its oddly inconsistent tone (most of the time it plays like black comedy, but some of its most effective moments are when it takes its characters seriously). As an ensemble piece, it doesn’t really work either, being too strongly skewed in favour of certain characters. That said, it’s not an un-entertaining mess, with some amusing and effective moments along the way. I didn’t come out of it wanting to hunt down and exact vengeance on the director, which was the case after Batman Vs Superman. This wouldn’t really qualify as a ringing endorsement under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances: we are in the odd world of DC’s movie output, and they do things differently here.

 

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I like cheese. I just had a pizza covered in cheese. Mmm mmm mmm. Cheese cheese cheese. Give me some more of that cheese, please – on a pizza or a burger, as you wish, either will suit me fine. Yes, cheese is great. You may feel I am labouring a point here, but sometimes I think cheese gets a bad rap which it doesn’t entirely deserve. I bet you have never referred to something as ‘cheesy’ and meant it in a good way.

I feel moved to talk about this, having recently enjoyed (again) Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film Independence Day, which basks in the reputation of being one of the cheesiest films ever made. Maybe this is true. There are many moments in this movie which are impossible to take seriously. It is by no means a ‘serious’ SF or action movie. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it I thought it was a masterpiece of entertainment, and many subsequent viewings have done little to modify this opinion.

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The plot goes like this. Everyday life on planet Earth, which according to this film mainly consists of the USA, is disturbed by the arrival from deep space of yet another load of belligerent extraterrestrial gits, aboard a fleet of massive flying saucers. Said vehicles assume positions hovering over major cities around the world, causing global panic. Things only get worse as the aliens prove to be hostile, simultaneously obliterating population centres and sweeping aside the world’s attempts at a military response. The extermination of the human race is only a matter of days away – and, even worse, with the Fourth of July holiday weekend looming, all the shops have sold out of party essentials…

Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin tell the story from the perspective of a bunch of different characters, amongst them the US President (Bill Pullman), a quirky boffin (Jeff Goldblum), a fighter pilot (Will Smith), and an alcoholic former abductee (Randy Quaid) – as you can see, this is a bit of a boy’s film. It’s not that there aren’t women in it (Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin and Vivica Fox appear) but they’re all cast as wives and girlfriends. This is really just the tip of the iceberg: this is a film with numerous plot strands going on, and a commensurately large cast of characters.

This is a clue to the type of film Emmerich and Devlin are looking to make. On the face of it, Independence Day is a straight-down-the-line alien invasion B-movie, albeit done with a massive budget and state-of-the-art special effects (there are considerable parallels with The War of the Worlds, in particular). Indeed, you could argue that in terms of the treatment of this particular theme, Independence Day is the definitive modern version – anyone else doing an alien invasion movie has had to come up with their own plot gimmick or else make a distinctive tonal choice just in order to differentiate it. (I suppose the dogfighting sequences owe a lot to Star Wars, too.)

But that’s not all that’s going on here. The multi-stranded narrative and the structure of the plot – the aliens remain an implacable, faceless force for much of the movie – also recall the 70s boom in all-star disaster movies, which this also sort of resembles. Both sci-fi B-pictures and disaster movies are essentially mainstream, schlock entertainment, and so it isn’t really a surprise that mashing them together on this scale works so well on a conceptual level.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt at all that the film is so well made. I’m not just talking about the special effects, which have aged well for the most part, but the deft and confident way in which Emmerich marshals a big and complex narrative with clarity and a sense of innocent fun (imagine the nightmare of an Independence Day directed by Michael Bay – or, alternatively, just watch one of his Transformers films). The overall pacing and structure are immaculate, as are the two big sequences of the film’s first act – the alien ships’ arrival over Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles, and later their destruction by honest-to-goodness death ray. These are superbly assembled, but also helped immeasurably by David Arnold’s score (possibly the composer’s best work).

It’s still never really been cool to like Independence Day, though. At the time one friend complained to me that he didn’t like jingoistic American movies, and while it is true that the rest of the world is reduced to walk-on parts, it’s a little hard to argue that a film the money shot of which is the White House going boom is entirely rabid in its American nationalism. The whole film has its tongue in its cheek at least half the time, anyway.

Which brings us to those accusations of wilful and premeditated cheesiness. Well, maybe the critics have a point here, because there are a lot of outrageously hokey moments in this film. The much-derided climax in which the US President climbs into an F-15 and personally leads the final assault on the alien invaders is, perhaps, excusable from a cultural history point of view – this film was made at the height of the Clinton era, after all, and it’s rare for the occupant of the White House not to be depicted in a somewhat fawning manner in any film of this period. But a lot of the rest of it is just, well, cheesy. I still find it tremendously enjoyable, though – it seems to me to be deliberately and knowingly cheesy, which just adds to the fun (this is a notably funny film, especially given the subject matter).

And yet it remains less of a genre favourite than many films I find much less engaging – Emmerich and Devlin’s Stargate, for example, probably has more of a following (though this may be down to the TV franchise). Perhaps this is just down to the dairy-product factor, or perhaps it’s because the film is so grounded in the mid-90s zeitgeist, with not much sense of a wider mythos or universe going on. Whatever the reason, I was fairly cool with that – but I must admit that the news of a couple of pending sequels doesn’t fill me with joy. If ever a blockbuster was complete in and of itself, it’s Independence Day, and as any cholesterol specialist will tell you, too much of a good thing can only make you sick.

 

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I don’t know, you wait years for a big-budget skiffy extravaganza concerning the fate of an abandoned and devastated planet Earth, and then two come along in the space of three months: closely in the wake of Oblivion, here comes After Earth, another film from M Night Shyamalan. Yes, despite his arguably not having made a decent film in well over ten years, people keep giving him multimillion dollar budgets to play with.

Shyamalan’s track record of critical calamity seems likely to continue, with professional film-watchers hailing After Earth as ‘dreary’ and ‘terrible’; even Buzz Aldrin didn’t like it very much. Which means that, excitingly, it’s time for a rare instalment of Is It Really As Bad As All That? which deals with a film which is still in cinemas.

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And, well, I don’t want to cut to the chase too early, readers, but it very nearly is. I bobbed along to the sweetshop to pick up my ticket, found myself a bit distracted when I reached the front of the queue, and ended up asking for a ticket to see afterbirth rather than After Earth. They worked out what I was on about, obviously, but I have to say this may have been some sort of precognitive Freudian slip – spending 100 minutes chowing down on Jaden Smith’s placenta would probably have been a more memorable and nourishing experience than watching After Earth.

Oh, boy. As is practically standard for a big-budget studio SF movie, this one kicks off with a scene-setting prologue with accompanying voice-over, and as I watched it my nasal passages were flooded with that special Bad Movie reek more strongly and quickly than I can ever recall happening before. There is a special combination of contrivance, cliche, and full-on exposition in the story of how the human race abandons the planet Earth, gets into a ruck with aliens on its adopted home planet, learns to fight various gribbly horrors, etc etc, that gets the movie off to a flying stop.

From here we meet various members of the Raige family, particularly teenaged boy Kitai (Jaden Smith) and his father Cypher (Will Smith) – why would you call someone a name like ‘Cypher’ in this sort of film, anyway? Surely it’s just asking for trouble? Hey ho. Smith Senior is humanity’s top soldier, mainly because he’s so very stern and grumpy all the time (stern and grumpy people are invisible to the alien monsters. No, don’t bother to think too hard about it). Smith Junior is academically gifted, but his quest to follow in his father’s footsteps is hampered by the fact that out in the field he is always dissolving into a meeping, glibbering idiot. There is awkward family history between Smiths Senior and Junior, their relationship is strained, not least by what an authoritarian parent he is… you’ve seen all this difficult-father-and-son-relationship before, I promise you, and done with more deftness and genuine emotion than it is here.

Anyway, at the instigation of the lady of the family (Sophie Okonedo), Smith Senior takes Junior off on a space trip with him. The ship involved looks like a rather rickety contraption made of wicker and vellum and I was not at all surprised when it crashed en route (also there had been a flashforward to this). The ship goes down on the uninhabited planet Earth killing everyone on board but the Smiths, and a terrible ordeal begins (the characters don’t have a very nice time of it either).

Unfortunately, the back end of the ship falls off on the way in, which is a problem because that’s where the distress signals are kept. Also – what are the chances? – the egg of a gribbly monster was also in the back end, and it may just have survived the crash and hatched. Sadly, Smith Senior has been a bit dinged up by the crash and so it falls to Smith Junior to toddle off across the wilderness to find the back end of the ship. One ill-timed meep or glibber could spell doom for the both of them, but luckily he has a radio so his father can pass on directions and important lessons in personal development along the way, rather like a cross between a life coach and a satnav. Meanwhile Smith Senior sits around in the wreckage, occasionally having personal flashbacks, recording unhelpful messages for his wife, performing gory DIY surgery on himself, and slowly sliding into a coma. Frankly, by the end of the film I was starting to feel the same way.

Well, look: the storytelling is competently handled and the central message of the film is completely innocuous, but by any rational standard After Earth is, at best, a phenomenally boring film. I think Will Smith is a charismatic and engaging screen presence, and I thought Jaden Smith was perfectly fine in The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Karate Kid, and I can only wonder at what special technique it is that Shyamalan has employed to extract such grindingly dull performances from the pair of them. I suppose it is partly down to the script, and here at least Smith Senior must take some of the blame, seeing as he gets a story credit: where is the sense in doing a story about characters whose behaviour revolves around the fact they must never show any emotion? How are you supposed to care or get properly involved?

This is before we even get to the background to the story or the details of the plot, both of which are perfunctory in the extreme. Don’t go looking for surprises, or unexpected reversals, or clever invention. Given this is a Shyamalan movie, I was almost expecting a quirky final twist: but there isn’t one. There are only the things you predicted were going to happen fifteen minutes into the film.

And as an actual piece of SF, this is borderline insulting. We are shown Earth as a devastated wasteland at the start of the film, but it has made a near-miraculous recovery by the time the action starts. Then we are told ‘everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans’ – how? Why? (Not that this actually appears to be true.) Even more oddly, there apparently isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere of Earth for Smith Junior to survive there with regular recourse to oxygen-loaded space Jammie Dodgers, despite the fact his species is originally native to the planet (and it is much more heavily forested than the new home world). This just looks like a cheap plot device. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. (The post-human Earth is not even that interesting or imaginative a place.)

As this is a studio movie made by professional film-makers with a respectable budget, the special effects are competently done and the look of the film is generally unexceptionable. But in virtually every other department After Earth clanks and squeaks and thuds its way through its running time, almost entirely thrill-free, joyless, pointless, actively irritating and deeply hackneyed (bits of it sort of resemble Outlander, but it’s not even that good). If there is a worse star-led major studio genre movie this year, I will be astonished.

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Off to the coffeeshop once again, and I was moved to irritation and quite possibly actual despair by a sign revealing that the the automatic ticket dispensing machine was ‘TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER’. Presumably this means one of two things: a rupture in the time continuum had encased the workings in an impenetrable stasis field, or the band of happy wibblers who serve coffee and cookies and tea (and occasionally, when they can fit it in, show the odd film) don’t know the difference between the words ‘temporally’ and ‘temporarily’. Obviously this is a sign of plummetting standards in something-or-other, but, less obviously, my reaction was a sign that one of my gloomy moods might be inbound, something which warrants monitoring.

In which case, it was just sheer bad luck that the first three trailers playing were for Fast Girls, Rock of Ages, and Top Cat – the Movie. Individually any of these would have been depressing, but together they constituted a veritable double-tap to the soul. So it may have been the case that I was not in the prime mood to be receptive to the jolly SF-inflected japery of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 3. Still going to write about it though – we haven’t done an Oh God Not Another One for a bit.

Ahem. Agents J (showbiz patriarch Will Smith in his first big movie for quite a bit) and K (Tommy Lee Jones, who at least did Captain America last year) are still doing their Men in Black schtick in New York, under new boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) – possibly Rip Torn didn’t want to come back, I don’t know. However, a nasty alien (Jemaine Clement) busts out of a prison on the moon with the aid of Nicole Scherzinger and heads for the Big Apple intent on taking revenge on old enemy K. (And if you think the film’s going to give you some kind of explanation for Scherzinger’s involvement, you’ve got another think coming!)

The bad guy gets his hand on a time machine and pops back to 1969 to kill K before he can catch him in the first place – don’t let the ins and outs of this concern you overmuch – conveniently leaving the only other time machine in the present day so J can follow him back. In the new timeline where K has been dead for decades, Earth is in terrible peril, and J has to save his partner for the planet to survive – and the best person to help our temporally-displaced (or, if you work for Odeon, temporarily-displaced) hero is a younger version of K (Josh Brolin)…

I get the strong impression that the over-riding motivation in making this film, on the parts of Smith and Sonnenfeld at least, was not ‘Hey, haven’t we come up with a great, strong, fun, original idea that demands that we revive this particular franchise!’ so much as ‘Hey, neither of us have had a proper mainstream hit in a long time -‘ Sonnenfeld’s last movie was Space Chimps in 2008, Smith’s last leading role in the bizarre transplant-a-thon Seven Pounds in 2009 ‘- let’s get together and milk the cash cow one more time.’ Certainly I had no sense of people crying out for another Men in Black movie after Men in Black 2.

But then again I wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel after the original film. I seem to have some sort of peculiar blind spot or – and I know this sounds like the sort of thing I’d make up just to facilitate cheap gags – selective amnesia where the Men in Black series is concerned. When I’m actually watching these movies, I find them to be more than passably fun, with a lot to enjoy. Will Smith is reliably adept at the kind of wisecracking leading man role he plays here, the central concept is a strong one, the films are always visually interesting and inventive, there are always a few genuinely funny gags, and Danny Elfman’s score adds irresistibly to the impression you’re watching something smart and stylish.

But are you, though? Once I’ve come out of seeing one of these films it nearly always fades from my memory in a remarkably brief period of time. To be blunt, I think the great achievement of these films is in putting a smart and stylish gloss on what’s really quite broad and knockabout entertainment. In this one, the trip back to 1969 permits some quite good jokes about the art scene of the period, but the films really shies away from any satire which is genuinely penetrating. There’s one scene in which Smith gets stopped and searched for driving an expensive car, which at least acknowledges an element of societal tension, but to put this in context there’s also some really dodgy stuff earlier on about Chinese restaurants.

The strengths of the series are all there, I suppose, and Brolin’s impression of Jones is a lot of fun. More fun, it must be said, than Jones’ impression of himself – he gives off an aura of being in the movie against his will, perhaps with guns trained on him from behind the cameras. His appearance is, frankly, as minimal as they can get away with, and one has to ponder if his claim that doing these movies is ‘a hell of a lot of fun’ is really sincere.

I feel I should also point out that the plot of this film borders on the incoherent, as is nearly always the case when a big movie talks about going back in time and meddling with events which have already happened. Can someone do a movie where this sort of thing is handled intelligently and in a way which doesn’t contradict itself, please? In the end things are resolved with the help of a plot-device character played (rather annoyingly, it must be said) by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a plan which may seem vaguely familiar to anyone who saw the Doctor getting rid of the Silence on TV around the time this film was being made.

But, all this said, the film passed the time pleasantly enough, even if I was never under the impression this was anything other than nicely-packaged, eminently-disposable entertainment with – it would seem – no real ambitions to be anything else. I will be really surprised if this film makes as big an impression as either of its predecessors, given the state of modern cinema. On past form, Men in Black 4 is not due until 2032, so at least they have a while to come up with an idea which does the MIB concept justice.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 12th 2004:

In olden days, it was always said that the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was so effective for a simple reason: he gave her class, and she gave him sex appeal. Something similar seems to be going on in the relationship between Hollywood studios and classic SF authors. With the recent fad for Philip K Dick adaptations seemingly on the wane, the next big-name author getting the studio makeover looks like being Isaac Asimov.

Now Asimov’s track-record at the cinema is not that great: Fantastic Voyage is a famous film, but not an especially good one, and the book isn’t exactly premium stuff. On the other hand, one of his best stories was turned into a horrific movie, The Bicentennial Man, largely due to the casting of Robin Williams in the title role. The great man himself had a go at adapting I, Robot, one of his most famous collections of stories, for the screen, but nothing ever came of it.

Until now, of course, as a movie with that title (based on a new script) has hit our screens, directed by Alex Proyas of The Crow and Dark City fame. Wikkidy wikkidy wah wah Will Smith plays Spooner, a tough, wise-cracking cop (yeah, good to see Smith stretching himself, isn’t it?) in 2035 Chicago. Spooner has a thing about robots following a traumatic event in his back-story so it’s just his luck that he’s assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the top boffins at US Robotics, one of the world’s most powerful corporations. Assisted by slightly less senior boffin Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan – not quite the ‘thin, plain’ type Ike had in mind, but whatever) he discovers the only suspect is a Nestor-5 type robot, Sonny (voiced, rather well, by Alan Tudyk). But the Laws of Robotics state that it’s impossible for a robot to harm a human, and with a major roll-out of Nestor-5s imminent, the last thing USR want is a panic about killer robots. Did Sonny kill his creator? If so, how? And what would this mean for the rest of the world?

I must confess to not having been too impressed by the early I, Robot trailers. Generic FX-driven action thrillers I don’t have a problem with, but doing a movie about killer robots on the rampage and tagging Asimov’s name to it is a bit like making an Agatha Christie adaptation where it turns out Miss Marple is the murderer: it’s a total misreading of the author’s intention. Asimov’s original robot stories were a deliberate attempt to look at the topic rationally and thoughtfully. So it’s rather pleasant to discover that Jeff Vintar, scribe on this movie, has clearly done his homework. The film is laced with themes and situations from throughout Asimov’s work, and the plot sticks fairly rigorously to the Laws of Robotics as Asimov conceived them.

But there’s inevitably a bit of dumbing down going on: Susan Calvin turns into a gun-toting floozy, and the film clearly isn’t as interested in the ramifications and interplay of the Three Laws as their creator was. The Laws are of roughly zero use in terms of practical real-world science, but they’re terrific as a plot device. The movie seldom really engages with them except on a rather basic level, but I suppose Asimov’s fans should be grateful they’re adhered to as closely as they are. And at one point the film looks like it’s going to go beyond the source material and interpret the human-robot relationship explicitly in terms of one between master and slave. There’s potential here for some very intelligent and thoughtful storytelling, but also controversy – which is probably why this aspect of the story is more or less soft-pedalled throughout.

In any case I doubt the mainstream audience this film is aimed at will care either way. This is clearly an attempt at a Minority Report-style thriller with a bit of the FX glamour of The Matrix and the Star Wars prequels added to broaden its appeal. And it’s a very glossy, slick, professional-looking movie. The special effects are impressive, particularly the character animation on Sonny and some of the action sequences. The film’s attempts at futurism are a bit haphazard, though – apart from the ubiquity of robots, this is one of those future worlds defined almost solely in terms of how the cars and advertising have changed. Very Minority Report, and it seems somehow fitting that the product placement the movie goes in for is crashingly unsubtle.

Alex Proyas has made some impressively dark and atmospheric movies in the past, but here he seems a little restrained – whether out of choice or by the studio I don’t know, but the results are rather bland and workmanlike. There seems to have been a conscious choice to play this movie as absolutely safe as it could possibly be – lowest common denominator film-making. This extends, obviously, to the casting of Will Smith. He’s a charismatic performer and never less than agreeable in front of the camera, but for the most part he’s just recycling performances from past blockbuster roles. The film could have used someone capable of a more intense and rounded performance, even if that meant losing a few of the howled one-liners Smith delivers at unlikely moments.

I’m sorry to sound so lukewarm about I, Robot as it’s a polished and slick thriller which treats its source material with more respect than one might have expected. It’s visually impressive, and the plot, while not hugely original, packs in plenty of twists and turns before the ending. But for me it never quite came to life either as true SF or an action movie. (Asimov himself combined SF with the detective thriller much more impressively in a couple of novels we’ll probably see adapted very soon.) It’s a perfectly good, entertaining film, but it shies away from genuinely original ideas in favour of the formulaic. This seems an odd criticism to make, but I, Robot is a bit mechanical.

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