After Earth (2013)

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After Earth is a film that got severely and unfairly panned when it was released. Its box office performance was dismal and that was a shame because the movie is a real gem. Fortunately it’s on Netflix and I would encourage you to give it another go if you passed on it in theaters. This film is head and shoulders above the other post-apocalyptic film released that year, Tom Cruise’s messy Oblivion.

Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith take the two leads in this picture and although Will Smith is the heavier screen presence, the film’s star is definitely Jaden.

In the near future, an environmental cataclysm forces the human race to abandon Earth and settle on a new world, Nova Prime.

One thousand years later, The Ranger Corps, commanded by General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), comes into conflict with the an alien race called the S’krell, whose secret weapons are the Ursas, large predatory creatures that hunt by “sensing” fear. The Rangers, however, have developed a technique called “ghosting” wherein they can mask their fear and remain invisible to the Ursas.

Cypher’s son, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is training to become a Ranger, but his application is rejected because of his lack of proficiency in the field. The general is disappointed and there is the expected father-son anger. Before he retires the general is going on one last trip and his wife Faie convinces him to take Kitai along, presumably in the hopes that it will help heal the rift between them.

There is a lot to work out, however. In flashbacks we learn that Kitai blames himself for the death of his sister Senshi (Zoë Kravitz) at the hands of an Ursa. He also blames his father for not being there to rescue them both. Cypher is stoic and undemonstrative, qualities that make him an excellent general but not an effective father.

During flight, their spaceship is caught by an asteroid shower forcing them to crash-land on the now-quarantined Earth. Both of Cypher’s legs are broken, and the main emergency rescue beacon damaged. Cypher instructs Kitai to locate the tail section of the ship, which broke off on entry to the atmosphere. Inside is the backup beacon which they can use to signal Nova Prime.

This is where the film really begins and where Jaden really shines. Unfortunately the character that he plays has obvious problems. He is willful, does not listen  and is prone to panic. It is these characteristics that his character has to overcome in order to succeed and to stay alive.

Despite the story being somewhat predictable, the film still manages to launch some surprises at the viewer and even a few genuine scares. The scenery is lush and beautiful and the cgi effects are subtle and understated for the most part. Will Smith spends most of the rest of the film laid up and only able to offer advice but his presence mitigates Kitai’s adolescent behavior until the communication is severed and Kitai is forced to manage on his own which, when he finally does, provides a satisfying payoff.

The film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but has none of that filmmaker’s usual plot twists and turns. Shyamalan brings a stately and an understated approach to the action and the alien creatures. He does yeoman work as a director-for-hire in bringing Will Smith’s movie to life.

The only issues I have with this film is its predictability. As soon as Kitai is told that he will not be graduating and joining the Ranger Corps and the reason why, then you know that the character will have to overcome that very flaw in order to survive. As soon as you see that the ship on which they are traveling contains a giant Ursa egg… well, as Anton Chekhov said: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Here the Ursa egg is shown prominently in act one, so it’s no surprise when a fully grown Ursa threatens Kitai by Act Three.

I also really did not buy the role of the giant eagle. It was more a mythical Roc than a natural eagle and its implied self-sacrifice to save Kitai was patently ridiculous. Also… lions climbing trees to raid nests? I know this is a future Earth, but… come on!

Still, aside from those there was a lot to like. I loved the look of the film. I loved the interesting look of the technology and how the film doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with heavy explanations about what it is and how it works. There is very much a “show, don’t tell” attitude about it and that I very much liked.

I also loved Will Smith’s understated performance as General Raige. It was the perfect counterpoint to Jaden’s hyperventilating turn as Kitai.

It’s a real shame that this film did not do very well at all in theaters because there is a lot here. I hate to say this but I really do believe, despite Will Smith’s box office power, that this film would probably have done better at the box office if the cast were white. The only film with a majority black cast that does big business in movie theaters are ones where they play slaves or servants.

In a science fiction film… and in charge of humanity? America don’t buy that, apparently.

But you should watch After Earth. It’s on Netflix. Check it out.

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DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

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I saw the first episode of the CW’s new show DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

I doubt I will be watching the second episode.

It’s not that there’s nothing to like about this first episode… there is… but for me, there’s just not enough of it to outweigh the really awful elements.

I mean, take Arthur Darvill. Who didn’t love him as Rory Williams on Doctor Who? Who wouldn’t want to get to see him as rogue time traveling hero Rip Hunter? Seeing his take on the Doctor’s role was something that I was really looking forward to.

However, this isn’t Doctor Who. This is an American show and American shows have to have certain level of “hero-ness” in their heroes. Darvill provides, but clearly it’s not something to which he is accustomed. His performance veers crazily over the top at times, particularly in the introductory scenes. I almost turned it off at that point.

I liked Victor Garber’s character as Professor Martin Stein, one half of the hero Firestorm. His appearances on The Flash were some of the high points for me so it was nice to see him here as well. And Wentorth Miller as “Captain Cold” Leonard Snart. I liked his character on the Flash and, again, it’s good to see him here.

Same with Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer, The Atom from Arrow and the new characters Hawkman and Hawkgirl. I loved them in the comics and it was great to see them here.

However… A TV show is not a comic book. It has a different structure and different expectations (and, yes, physical limitations, despite the wondrous age of CGI in which we live). Those elements… the setting up of the parameters that will go towards defining the sories that the subsequent episodes will tell… well, it was just too tedious. The story arcs were obvious and the twist reveal three quarters of the way through came as not much of a surprise.

I wanted to like it. I really did. But I’m afraid I have to heave a heavy sigh and call DC’s Legends of Tomorrow less than legendary.

Time Like Broken Glass

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Okay. This is the post where I say: Buy my book. You can click away if you want. I’ll understand.

On the other hand, if you’re on the hunt for a book for your Kindle or other e-reader and you like fantasy novels, then this just might be the post for you.

Time Like Broken Glass is a fantasy novel but it is also a time travel story. If you like Doctor Who, you might like this book. If you like fantasy novels with lots of magic, then you’ll like this book. If you like urban fantasy… if you liked Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere… then you may well like this book.

It has elements of Medieval fantasy, Elizabethan fantasy and Urban fantasy all mixed together. And it has time travel.

If you like any of those things then you may well like Time Like Broken Glass.

So… buy my book!

http://www.amazon.com/Time-Like-Broken-Glass-Magistria-ebook/dp/B00XT97DKO

There. I said it. Now let’s move on to something else…

Two Gun Bob

 

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See this guy? This is Bob.

It’s his birthday today. He would have been 110 years old if he hadn’t taken his own life in 1936.

He was a bit of an oddball. He lived his whole life in a small town in Texas and never traveled very far from there.

They made a movie about him, though. Well, it was really about his girlfriend. Vincent D’Onofrio played him.

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Bob wrote a lot stuff in his short life and people still read it today. I have five big trade paperbacks in the bookshelf to my right that is filled with his words.

Bob created this guy:

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So, Happy Birthday, Bob!

DC Films Presents: Dawn of the Justice League

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I’ve been taking a break from Netflix movie reviews for a couple of days partly because of other writing commitments and party just out of sheer exhaustion. The exhaustion is down to Winter, pure and simple. Winter is kickin’ my ass, man.

But then this happened. A couple of nights ahead of the premiere of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, the CW aired a special about the upcoming films in the DC Comics universe

I missed this special when it aired the other night but I caught it all on Youtube just now. and it was kind of exciting, which was a surprise. Honestly I have been expecting little to nothing from the DC Comics movies. DC in the films has been handed their asses by the Marvel Movie juggernaut, so much so that I, like a lot of people, had counted them out.

But it seems they’ve got some fight left and this special was their way of sounding the trumpet, blasting in front of the place where DC characters have had the strongest showing so far, on TV.

So, other than Kevin Smith fangirling all over Geoff Johns, the Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics, the special offers a glimpse at the projects that DC Films is working on and some of the ones that are just in the development stage. It also talks about the upcoming Superman v. Batman movie and frames it’s subtitle in no uncertain terms. Dawn of Justice will be the dawn of the Justice League movie (which will be DC’s answer, belated as it is, to Marvel’s Avengers)

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The footage from Wonder Woman was intriguing. It’s clear that her first solo effort is a period piece set during WWII. Obviously Wonder Woman is ageless because she appears in Batman v. Superman looking exactly the same. Presumably Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is dead by then (or, perhaps, very, very old?)

Still, the footage looks interesting and Gal Godot seems to have been the right pick for the role. She even manages to pull off a resemblance to Lynda Carter, the 1970’s TV Wonder Woman in a couple of scenes. Her fight scenes are a lot more intense, though. She’s a real badass.

My only question, and this is the same question that I had about Man of Steel, is why is it all so dark? It all looks like it was filmed Day for Night, even the daytime scenes? What’s up with that? I can understand that Batman has to have that vibe, but these iconic heroes are the very embodiment of the Four Color Heroes. They are meant to be bright primary colors, not skulking in the shadows.

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It’s ironic that Marvel heroes, originally darker and more graduated, are coming across in their movies as much more colorful than their DC counterparts. What’s with that?

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The one film where that would work is the upcoming Suicide Squad film. The special ended with the second trailer for that film and it was very exciting. This film could very well be DC’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a surprise sleeper hit.

We have to wait for August for that film, though, but Dawn of Justice and our first real look at Wonder Woman, releases sooner, on March 25th.

I am actually getting kind of excited about this. Go figure!

Oblivion (2013)

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You know, there is a really interesting science fiction story somewhere in this film. Unfortunately it’s buried underneath the weight of Tom Cruise.

Oblivion was written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, based on an unpublished graphic novel which he co-wrote with Arvid Nelson. Kosinski pitched the idea to Universal and they bought it which led to it being developed as a motion picture. According to Kosinski the film pays homage to the science fiction films of the 1970’s.

Well, he’s got that part right. Oblivion travels some very familiar territory. Visually the film borrows heavily from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the original Solaris and some of the Planet of the Apes films. Visually there is more than a few nods to the future as envisioned by the 1970`s.

Oblivion takes place in 2077. The Earth has been devastated by war with an extraterrestrial invader, the Scavengers (referred to as scavs)  Humanity is relocating Titan via the Tet, a large tetrahedron-shaped space station. Gigantic offshore fusion energy generators drain the oceans to produce power for the colonists on Titan.

Jack Harper (Cruise) is Tech / 49. He and his teammate and lover Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are among the few humans left on Earth. Instructed by mission controller Sally and assisted by drones, they protect the generators from attack by any remaining Scavs. Despite having had a memory wipe, Jack experiences visions of being on the observation deck of the Empire State Building with an unknown woman before the war.

All this is backstory and is given to us via Tom Cruise`s voice over narration, which feels kind of forced and awkward. Jack and Vika live in an ultra-modern sky apartment that looks like it was designed by a tech firm rather than an actual production designer. Cruise wears a funky leather suit and flies a sleek looking airplane. Vika stays behind wearing a dress and shiny pumps operating a super-slick monitoring station.

Cruise flies down to the surface of the ruined wasteland that was the earth. Only the tops of the very tallest buildings can be seen poking above the sand. Despite that Cruise finds the ruined remains of an old football stadium and single handedly re-enacts the last Superbowl ever played before the war (how he can remember that with his memory having been wiped is never fully explained). He also has a place where he hangs out, an idyllic cabin that he has built for himself in a little wooden area hidden in a valley and conveniently located in a radio blind spot so that Vika can`t find him. Here he has his aviator sunglasses from Top Gun and his New York Yankees cap and he unwinds and lies in the grass and enjoys the sunshine of old Earth.

He also rides a motorcycle, which should come as no surprise. I think Tom Cruise’s standard contract comes with a “must ride a motorcycle in the movie” clause. Sure, it’s a super sleek futuristic motorcycle, but it still makes the requisite “vroom vroom!” noise.

So Tom’s idyllic existence is interrupted by the arrival of a pre-invasion earth ship which crash lands nearby. When Tom goes to investigate he finds several cryo-pods containing humans in suspended animation. What are the odds that one of them is the unknown woman from his dreams of the Empire State Building.?

A drone destroys all the pods except for the one containing Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko). Tom saves her from being destroyed, of course, because she is his dream girl. But her presence causes Tom to start questioning everything he’s been told.

Well, from there the film plods along in a rather predictable way. If you’ve seen a lot of science fiction films from the 1970’s (and, believe me, I have) then the plot’s twists and turns will not come as any surprise.

In fact, little about this film surprised me, right down to the dialogue which I found myself quoting before the actors had even spoken the lines.

Like I said, there is a good story underneath all the flashy designs and Cruise’s overbearing performance. Not even Morgan Freeman is able to elevate it all above mediocre, though. The way that the filmmakers get to the meat of the story feels awkward, like they had to incorporate so many disparate elements to meet the requirements of the film’s star that by the time you get there you wonder why it took so long.

The other big problem is casting. Cruise is the star and he needs a heavyweight antagonist. That’s Freeman. But is he an antagonist? Or is he really on Cruise’s side? See, you need a talented heavyweight actor to pull that subtlety off, right? Then there’s Nicolaj Coster-Waldau who is cast as the standard “angry” antagonist, the kind who wonders aloud why-are-we-keeping-him-alive-why-don’t-we-just-kill-him?

The problem with this film lies with its female leads. They feel rather miscast. The female characters have very little to do to begin with, but it seems like the director has purposely cast smaller, frailer, very non-kick-ass actresses into the roles. The one character who could have been a real threat to Cruise if she had been beefed up a little, is portrayed as simpering and unsure and more of an annoyance than an obstruction.

You know, if you’ve got a few hours to kill (and you’ll need more than two. This is a needlessly long movie) and you don’t have to pay for it, then you could watch this film. But if you have to go to any sort of trouble… don’t bother.

This film isn’t worth the effort.

Attack the Block (2011)

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I have been struggling with how to properly review this film and to do it justice and just last night I realized that I can’t. You see, the film has so much to say about racism and about inner city gangs and the unfairness of the society which creates them and yet punishes them for existing. It also has a lot of subtext about gender roles and what it means to transition from being a boy to being a man and taking responsibility for your actions.

I can’t speak to any of that. I do not have the skill and so many others have already done that, and done it so much better than I possibly could. There’s a great review here from a blog called LADY GEEK GIRL and Friends. Go read that.

However, the form that all of this social commentary takes is that of a monster movie… an alien invasion movie. And that… that I think I’m qualified to take on.

ATTACK THE BLOCK begins with fireworks… literally.

The film opens on Bonfire Night in Brixton, South London. A young woman is walking home to her flat when she is held up at knife point by a gang of young hoodlums. The gang take her cell phone, cash and a ring. As the robbery is happening the fireworks are bursting overhead and something comes down from the sky and crashes into a nearby car.

The leader of the young gang, Moses (John Boyega), goes to investigate. A strange little creature jumps out of the ruins of the car and attacks Moses, leaving him with deep scratches on his face before running off into the night. In the panic the young woman runs off but the young gang has a new focus now. Moses wants to hunt the little creature down and kill it.

This is where we get introduced to the gang. The gang that we just saw rob an innocent woman, the gang of hoodlums that only a moment before the audience held great antipathy towards, this is when we get to know them and, against all odds, begin to feel sympathetic towards.

They are young… very young… barely teens. Their exuberance over the hunt for the creature is infectious. You forget that mere moments ago these were faceless hoodlums who robbed an innocent woman at knifepoint.

They hunt down the creature which is white and hairless and most certainly alien. They kill the beast and take it back to their dealer (Nick Frost) who lives in their apartment block. The dealer works for the boss gangster, Hi Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). He owns the block and he can make or break the young gangsters who live there. He allows the alien corpse to be stored in his weed room and he singles out Moses, giving him the responsibility of dealing cocaine.

The gang is ecstatic with their kill and Moses’ newfound favor. Their jubilation is short lived, though, due to the arrival of the rest of the aliens. These aliens aren’t small, white and hairless like the first. These are big, black and full of glow-in-the-dark teeth. They are murderous and they mean business.

Fleeing the aliens, the gang are intercepted by two policemen and Moses is arrested, identified by Samantha, the woman he mugged. The aliens, following Moses, maul the police to death and attack their van, leaving Samantha and Moses trapped inside. Dennis reaches the vehicle and drives the van away, only to crash into Hi-Hatz’s car. Samantha runs away while the rest of Moses’s gang catch up and confront Hi-Hatz.

From here on, Attack the Block follows the general plot of most alien invasion movies. The gang has to contend with aliens, avoid getting arrested or murdered by the psychotic Hi Hatz.

As with all of these films, the gang is slowly picked off by the marauding monsters. That’s the way these movies go, but it is really heartbreaking in this case because you can’t help but like all the members of the gang. As a viewer of these kinds of movies you know that some of them won’t make it to the end of the film.

This film is produced by the same people who made Shawn of the Dead, and this has the same sort of sensibility about it. It plays with the conventions and sometimes subverts the audiences expectations. It’s familiar territory for a lot of us, and it is also more than a little violent. Despite the fact that the cast is as young as 9, this is certainly not a movie for the kiddies.

I won’t give away any plot points. Needless to say the film is entertaining and very satisfying on the level of an “aliens invade” movie, but there is also so much more in terms of subtext. The film deals with racism, with the class system in England, and with the problem of youth violence in general. It doesn’t preach at all, nor does it hit you over the head with it all. It doesn’t even offer up any solutions. It just presents it along with everything else and the viewer is left to sort it all out for him or herself.

Do watch this. I really can’t recommend it enough. The story is well told, the aliens are really well done and menacing, and the performances are all amazing. But I will give a warning for the squeamish — there’s some real over-the-top violence. Not quite Tarantino level, but certainly more than in your average episode of Doctor Who, so… be warned.

Five stars… ten out of ten… two thumbs up…