Sunset (2018)


Patricia (Barbara Bleier) peers out at a bleak future.

(2018) Drama (Random Media) Barbara Bleier, Austin Pendleton, Liam Mitchell, David Johnson, Juri Henley-Cohn, Suzette Gunn, Erin Bruch, Tom Coughlin, Amanda Rae Dodson, Cameron Berner, Faith Bruch, Anthony LoCascio, Michael Pacyna, Erika Rademaker, Susan Feinman. Directed by Jamison M. LoCascio

 

For a very long time the human race has lived with the idea of its own extinction. Whether brought down by the wrath of God or by the hubris of science, there has been a constant Damoclean sword hanging over our heads. For the most part, we try not to think about it, going about our daily lives. How would things change if we knew that end was imminent?

Patricia (Bleier) is given a surprise birthday party by her longtime husband Henry (Mitchell). All of their friends are there, from Henry’s former partner Ayden (Henley-Cohn) who has a successful financial business of his own and Ayden’s girlfriend Breyanna (Gunn). Also in attendance is Henry’s current employee Chris (Johnson), a mentally challenged young man that Patricia and Henry have more or less adopted (he lives in their home), and Patricia’s former colleague Julian (Pendleton). It should be an occasion of joy but hanging over their head was the recent nuclear attack on Los Angeles. They live in New York so they are well aware there’s a huge target painted on their home.

The pall on the occasion is further lengthened by an argument between Henry and Julian regarding the government’s handling of the L.A. situation; Henry believes that retaliation should be part of policy while Julian believes that the government’s conventional weapon attacks have only made matters worse. Patricia, who has mobility issues after an accident permanently damaged her spine and ended her dancing – and dance teaching – careers, decides to call an early night. There is tension between Henry and Julian beyond the argument; it seems that Julian has some strong feelings for Patricia, feelings that Henry is well-aware of.

The next day, the news comes that an attack on New York City is expected and that the city is to be evacuated. That leads to mass panic; looting and worse are the orders of the day. The news provokes different reactions in all of them; some of fear, some of anger, some of confusion but all have decisions to make: where do you go when the world has gone mad?

This is the second feature from LoCascio and there are a lot of good things here. This isn’t a movie that dwells on the geopolitical implications of a nuclear conflict, nor does it get wrapped up in special effects or barrel-chested heroes saving the world from annihilation at the very last possible moment. This is a movie about people, people who are facing the unthinkable and trying to cope. In many ways this is the most real movie about nuclear holocaust that’s ever been made.

But there are flaws here. At times the acting feels stiff; Johnson in particular tries a little too hard and it shows. While Bleier and Mitchell make a believable couple, Bleier doesn’t quite carry off the role the way perhaps it should have been. She needed to be a little more fragile, especially in light of what happens in the last third of the film. Henley-Cohn acquits himself the best here; he has some screen presence and a kind of Mark Harmon-like rugged boyishness that is appealing.

The movie’s main strength – its intelligence – does also lead into something that may prevent audiences from connecting; it’s very talky. Most of the movie is made up of conversations between various characters as they discuss the impending attack and what their plans are. There’s not a lot of action here and I don’t mean in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sense; I mean that the characters are curiously inert. They’re waiting for something to happen rather than making things happen. American audiences tend not to respond to that very well.

The ending though is a hum-dinger. I won’t go much further than that other than to say that you may not find a better one in a movie this year. LoCascio gets points for sticking the landing; that’s not an easy task and a lot of filmmakers these days fail to do so which can take a great movie and turn it into a mediocre one. On the contrary, the last few minutes of the movie are truly magic.

Right now the movie is preparing for a July 3rd release date on most of the major VOD and streaming platforms. Given the interesting premise I imagine that a lot of people looking for something new to watch may end up clicking on it. While I can only muster up a qualified recommendation, the movie does at least not spoil a great premise. If the performances were a little bit better, this might have been one of those sleeper movies that comes up and takes you by surprise, pleasantly so. Still, I can’t honestly say “skip it” either.

REASONS TO GO: Henley-Cohn has a Mark Harmon-like quality. The ending is really terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the performances are stiff or way over-the-top. Some may find it a little too talky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a brief scene of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Veteran film lovers will recognize Pendleton as Dr. Larrabee from What’s Up Doc.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Cakemaker

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Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

The Look of Silence


Hindsight rarely is 20/20.

Hindsight rarely is 20/20.

(2009) Documentary (Drafthouse) Adi Rukun, M.Y. Basrun, Amir Hasan, Inong, Kemat, Joshua Oppenheimer, Amit Siahaan, Ted Yates. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

 

One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen is The Act of Killing. A look at the death squads that murdered between half a million and a million people in Indonesia in 1965-6 as a brutal military junta (which is in power to this day) took over. In an effort to rid the country of “communists” (which was broadly defined to include ethnic Chinese and basically anyone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time) the government employed civilian thugs, often criminals and gangsters, to do their dirty work for them. The film allowed the men, who freely admit their deeds and are admired and venerated for them in Indonesia, to re-enact their atrocities which they do in the style of Hollywood b-movies of which they were all generally admirers.

The movie raised some questions, particularly after one of the most brutal of the death squad leaders has a sudden epiphany as to the horrible crimes he’d committed, as to whether men like that can be forgiven, whether there is any redemption for them and whether there are crimes so heinous that they simply can’t wipe the stain of them off of their souls.

The question in this follow-up film – not a sequel in the broad sense – has to do more with closure. We meet Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose older brother Ramli was murdered during the takeover; he is watching footage from The Act of Killing of his brother’s smiling murderers describing his murder. In his guise as an optometrist giving them eye tests, he confronts those men, often subtly asking them about their roles in the death squads and asks if they feel any remorse. The results are often stark and sometimes surprising.

We also meet Adi’s parents – a mother whose grief remains as intense 50 years later, and a father who has succumbed to dementia and is blind as well as deaf. He is cared for by Adi’s mother for the most part. It’s not a fate I would wish on anyone but considering what he lived through it might be a kinder one than that of his wife who remembers all of it.

When evil is institutionalized, fear becomes an everyday occurrence. Many of the people who appear in this film do so anonymously; after all, the perpetrators of these crimes are still in power as are their descendents. The closure most of the families of the victims need is likely not to be forthcoming in their lifetimes. Adi and his family were compelled to relocate after the movie came out. Reprisals are not unknown in Indonesia, even today.

Oppenheimer is a masterful documentarian and these two movies will go down as two of the best ever made. These are powerful films that are not for the faint of heart or more accurately, the faint of stomach. The descriptions of acts of atrocity are not only grim but they can be downright nausea-inducing. Nonetheless the two movies make for excellent bookends, looking at these atrocities from the points of view of the murderers and the survivors. I don’t know if Adi Rukun got the closure he wanted – he certainly got something from this venture but I don’t know if it helps him sleep any better. Either way, both movies are must-sees for any lovers of movies and for those who believe in social justice. Together, they will form an eye-opening experience that is absolutely going to be unforgettable for you.

WHY RENT THIS: There are powerful moments of revelation. The beautiful countryside juxtaposes with the brutal events that took place there. The observation of the whitewashing of history in the classrooms is bone chilling. Again we are reminded of man’s capacity for utterly inhuman actions.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The description of the killings can be gruesome and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it eventually lost out to Amy.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A session from the film’s screening at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, footage from the film’s Indonesian premiere as well as audience reactions to the film and an interview with Oppenheimer about various aspects of production, particularly how the movie (and its predecessor) came to be.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $153,616 on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Act of Killing
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Raise Your Kids on Seltzer

The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts

Chalet Girl


Tamsin Egerton and Felicity Jones have a lot on their plates.

Tamsin Egerton and Felicity Jones have a lot on their plates.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Felicity Jones, Tamsin Egerton, Ed Westwick, Bill Nighy, Brooke Shields, Bill Bailey, Georgia King, Sophia Bush, Nicholas Braun, Rebecca Lacey, Tom Goodman-Hill, Jo Martin, Miquita Oliver, Ken Duken, Alex Macqueen, Mike Goodenough, Tara Dakides, Gregor Bloėb, Adam Bousdoukos, Abbie Dunn, Amber Atherton, Jessica Hynes. Directed by Phil Traill

Not everyone has an easy life. In fact, most of us don’t. It can be a matter of circumstance – being born into poverty, in a place where escaping from poverty isn’t an option. Sometimes, we make our own lives hard through poor choices and foolish mistakes. However, sometimes life just serves up lemons. It’s up to us whether to suck on those lemons or make lemonade.

Kim Matthews (Jones) has every reason to make a sour face. She was brought up in a happy, middle class English family and had become a champion skateboarder but all that came to a screeching halt when a car accident that she was involved in took the life of her mother. The trauma of the crash rendered her unable to take on the more daring aspects of her sport, so she is reduced to flipping burgers at a British fast food joint to make ends meet for her and her dad (Bailey). Then, opportunity knocks.

After fruitlessly searching for a better-paying job, she finally nets one – working at an Alpine chalet as a kind of factotum for wealthy vacationers wintering there. She’s a combination waitress, maid, butler, chef and essentially facilitator for Richard (Nighy) and his snooty American wife Caroline (Shields). However, she takes more than a passing interest in their hunky son Johnny (Westwick).

At first, the other chalet girls look down on the less posh girl, particularly Georgie (Egerton) but as time goes by the staff at the resort begin to warm up to Kim as does Johnny, which doesn’t please Caroline. No, not one eensy weensy tiny little bit, especially since his girlfriend is spoiled American rich girl Chloe (Bush) whom Caroline thinks is far more suitable for little Johnny. Well, not so little anymore.

Mikki (Duken), seeing a bored Kim struggling while learning to snowboard, teaches her and realizes she has a natural gift for it. He urges her to enter a competition in which the top prize is $25,000 and after some persuading, she agrees to. Johnny, noticing that Kim has gotten good at snowboarding, pays her additional cash to teach him as well, which doesn’t sit too well with either Caroline or Chloe.

However, the same demons that haunted Kim in skateboarding continue to make her snowboarding difficult. Will she be able to get past her fears and become the athlete she is capable of being? Or will she lose everything to the ghosts of her past?

Like most romantic comedies that are being made today, both in Hollywood and on independent sets, Chalet Girl is fairly formulaic. You have two people from opposite sides of the tracks, both extraordinarily good-looking and surrounded by quirky but supportive friends who are almost as good-looking, who fall in love despite having little in common, then a misunderstanding and/or mistake on the part of one or both tears them apart only to (and this shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to anyone who watches a lot of rom-coms) get back together in the end.

Jones, who has since gone on to bravura performances in films like The Theory of Everything and True Story with high-profile roles in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One and Inferno, is delightful here. A cross between an English rose and the American girl next door, she’s winsome, a little bit naive, but pure pluck. She is grappling with the demons resulting from the car accident, but she soldiers on nonetheless. She’s the kind of girl that you figure a fella would be crazy not to fall in love with.

Nighy is always reliable and turns in a solid performance here; veteran British comic Bailey also shines in his brief role. The humor here is bone-dry which fans of English humor will enjoy but those who don’t like British comedy may find this not to their liking, although I’m glad to say that I’m a fan. For the most part unfortunately, Traill and writer Tom Williams seem content to follow establish formulas and play it safe at every turn. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – not every film should be an excuse for innovating – but this one feels so forgettable and disposable that it wastes some fine performances and some good chemistry.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones is a charming romantic lead. Dry humor welcome.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Rom-com cliches abound. Takes no chances.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough rough language to merit an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming was briefly interrupted when a snow storm threatened the location in Austria where the skiing sequences were being filmed.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Cast interviews and YouTube “viral videos.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M on a $10.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Wears Prada
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Brooklyn

Inside Out (2015)


Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger, Josh Cooley, Flea, Carlos Alazraqui, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen

Growing up can be a dangerous thing. There are no manuals on how to deal with our emotions; we just have to do the best we can, which is generally not good enough. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and realize that it is okay not to be happy and cheerful every minute of every day.

11-year-old Riley (Dias) and her Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan) have moved to San Francisco from Minnesota and the usually cheerful Riley is not happy about it. She misses her friends, she misses playing hockey – a sport she loves and excels at – and she misses the shall we say less urban environment of her old home.

Up in her head, Riley’s emotions are working double time. In charge (more or less) is Joy (Poehler), a sprite-like being who wants all of Riley’s memories to be happy. Working alongside her are Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader). Sadness is a squishy blue teardrop, Anger a red brick who sometimes blows flames out of his head, while Disgust is broccoli-green and Fear is a twitchy pipe cleaner with a bow tie.

The emotions work in Headquarters, the part of her brain where the emotions exert control and memories are made and separated into storage – long term, short term and core. “Islands” are formed by her core memories, helping to establish Riley’s personality – love of hockey, honesty, love of family, imagination and so on. A variety of workers keep the memories stored and occasionally, dump them to disappear (Phone numbers? Doesn’t need them. She keeps them in her phone) and make room for new ones. The memories manifest as little globes like pearls, colored by whatever emotion is associated with that memory although Sadness has discovered that when she touches a memory, the emotional hue can change.

Not long after that, a series of accidents strands Joy and Sadness together in the long term memory area of Riley’s head. Worse yet, the core memories have accidentally been sent there, which will slowly lead to her personality islands crumbling away. Joy and Sadness will have to work together to get those core memories back to Headquarters. They’ll be aided by Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s imaginary playmate whom she hasn’t thought of in years. But they’ll have to hurry; Anger, Disgust and Fear have been left in charge and their decision-making process is, to say the least, untrustworthy.

This is one of the most imaginative animated features in years. Say what you want about the execution of the movie (which is, by the way, pretty dang nifty) but the concepts here are much different than any animated movie – or movie of any other kind – you’re likely to encounter.

The vocal performances are solid, albeit unspectacular although the casting of Black as Anger was inspired if you ask me. He steals the show whenever his rage button is pushed, which is frequently. Poehler gets the bulk of the dialogue as Joy but Kaling, Smith and Hader also get their moments and all of them encapsulate their emotional counterparts nicely.

True to its subject matter, the movie moves from whimsical (as when Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness move through the subconscious and change forms to two-dimensional and into Depression era animated figures) to downright moving (Bing Bong’s plaintive expression of his desire to make Riley happy, despite the fact that she’s forgotten him). While the emotional resonance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 aren’t quite there, it still packs quite a powerful emotional punch in places. Softies, beware and bring plenty of tissue.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that from time to time the story is not as straightforward as it is with other Pixar films and it might be a tad difficult to follow for younger kids, who will nonetheless be quite happy with the colors and shapes of the new characters that are likely to dominate the toy merchandise this summer (at least, until the new Minions movie comes out). It also has a tendency to set us up with what appear to be rules to follow only to do something a bit different. I’m not a stickler for such things – this is an animated feature, not a documentary – but some people who are anal about it might have issues.

The lesson to be learned here for kids is that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, disgusted or even afraid. It isn’t a requirement to be happy all the time – nobody is. We all must, sooner or later, deal with all of our emotions, even the not so nice ones. All of them are there for a reason.

Despite the minor flaw and given all of the movie’s strengths I found this movie to be beautifully rendered with a wonderfully imaginative setting and characters I could get behind. The storyline isn’t earth-shattering – essentially it’s about a disgruntled 11-year-old girl who wants to go back to the home she’s used to and acts out because of it – but all of us can relate to dealing with emotions, either because we know an eleven year old or at least been an eleven year old. Pixar has been on a bit of a cold streak as of late but this movie reminds us of how great this studio is and how much they have contributed to the animated feature genre. This is a gem, destined to be another in a long line of Pixar classics.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and different. Moving in places. Teaches kids that it’s okay to have negative emotions as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements may be a bit much for the very small; there is also some animated action and a few images that might be frightening for the less mature child.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mindy Kaling was reportedly so moved by the script that she burst into tears during the initial meetings with director Pete Docter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up
FINAL RATING: 8,5/10
NEXT: Ted 2

After Earth


Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry  film critics.

Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry film critics.

(2013) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Diego Klattenhoff, David Denman, Lincoln Lewis, Jaden Martin, Sincere L. Bobb, Monika Jolly, Demetrice Jackson, Joe Farina, Albert Valladares, Jim Gunter, Tiffany E. Green. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A friend of mine – who happens to be a big movie buff – posted on his Facebook page that he overheard during a trailer for After Earth at a different movie some people re-christen the movie Afterbirth. I chastised him at the time, saying something about judging a movie before you’d seen it (which seems to be an Internet hobby for many these days). We went back and forth over all the red flags he’d seen in the trailer that were making him uneasy about the movie. We left it with that he has no plans to see it unless he hears from friends he trusts that the movie is worth checking out. I think it’s safe to say that he’ll probably not be coming to the multiplex for this one.

The movie takes place over 1,000 years in the future. The human race has abandoned Earth after polluting it into essentially an uninhabitable wasteland. We eventually made our way to a planet called Nova Prime which sadly already had their own inhabitants who didn’t take kindly to our incursion. They genetically engineered a creature called an Ursa which was all razor sharp pincers and teeth which hunted based on smell. It literally was attracted to its prey by fear.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) found a way to mask his fear, rendering him invisible to the Ursa, allowing him and other Rangers (the military force of the human race) to essentially end the threat of the creatures. However it came at a high cost – while Cypher was away on duty, an Ursa invaded his home killing his daughter Senshi (Kravitz) in front of his young son Kitai (Martin).

Five years after that tragedy, a 14-year-old Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying out for the Rangers. While great in the classroom, he has a tendency to fall apart in the field, haunted by the death of his sister. Commander Velan (Morshower) tells him as gently as possible that he has failed his application into the Rangers. Kitai is mortified; his father is due home that evening and will not be pleased at all.

His mother Faia (Okonedo) urges Cypher to bond with his son who is desperate to please him. Cypher, knowing that he hasn’t been the presence in his son’s life that he needs to be, takes him along on an off-world mission transporting an Ursa to a research station on a distant moon. Instead, the ship runs into a freak meteor storm and is forced to crash land where it all started – on Earth. As the ship goes down it breaks in two.

Cypher breaks both his legs seriously in the crash and he and Kitai are the only survivors in the front section of the ship. The distress beacon is also damaged beyond repair but there is another one in the tail section. The trouble is it’s 100 km (about 62 miles) away through hostile territory. The planet you see isn’t so thrilled about what the humans did to it and all life has evolved to kill humans. We are no longer used to the atmosphere so a liquid must be consumed every 24 hours to help us breathe. The planet is prone to violent temperature swings. And the captive Ursa has gotten loose and is sure to be after the creature it was bred to kill – a fearful human an there’s nobody more fearful than Kitai. Still, Kitai must overcome his fear and reach the beacon or both he and his dad will be toast.

The studio was very cagey about marketing the film. Director Shyamalan, whose name has appeared in the title of his last few films, was absent from all marketing materials – even the trailers. I can kind of understand why. Shyamalan, who had become an acclaimed director based on The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable had fallen on a series of bombs that have turned his name into box office poison which is kind of a shame – he’s a very talented director with a great visual sense who had for whatever reason become something of an Internet Kryptonite when it came to movies. The fanboys loathe him  and so the studio felt that the movie would be unfairly judged if Shyamalan’s name was attached to it (a fear that I think was justified). By emphasizing the presence of the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith the studio thought they’d attract an audience.

Unfortunately, the movie really isn’t very good. The story is interesting, and there’s a compelling message of mastering your fear and learning to balance your emotions. There are also some pretty amazing visuals that will keep your eyes happy.

There are also some questionable decisions, like the odd accent that the people of the future affect (was that really necessary to anything?) to some of the lapses in logic that dot the film (why would a planet evolve to kill a species that has been gone for a millennium, and why would a race that could develop a hand-held beacon not make it go off automatically in a crash, or at least allow the crew to deploy it manually before the crash). Those are kind of bothersome.

Will Smith, the loving dad, really sets this movie up to be Jaden’s film. I can’t really blame the proud papa; his son has shown some promise in his brief acting career but I think he expected a little too much from him here. Quite frankly, his son’s performance is disappointing. Part of it is that odd accent that makes him sound a bit goofy, and the script also calls upon Kitai to freak out with great regularity which makes the character generally unlikable, which doesn’t do Jaden any favors. The fact is however that the emotional outbursts that Kitai has are never very believable; Jaden just ratchets up the volume and that’s supposed to convince us of his rage and frustration. His brow is crinkled up through much of the film, making him look like he’s about to cry which also sends a subliminal message to the audience that this boy isn’t ready for this.

I feel bad having to say these things because as a critic, you really don’t want to rank on a young actor who may not have the coping skills necessary to deal with criticism but I think that at the end of the day my readers deserve to know what to expect when they see the film. Frankly, had Cypher been alone and had to make the journey himself it might have been a more riveting film but of course that would have upended much of the film’s message – but it would have made for a better movie

REASONS TO GO: Some amazing visuals.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled. Logical lapses. Jayden Smith’s performance is excruciating.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of the sci-fi variety as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in 20 years that Shyamalan has accepted a project based on a screenplay that was written by someone else.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oblivion

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Spy Next Door