After Earth

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm

1108146 - After Earth“After Earth” goes off the rails in the first minute as Jaden Smith (the “Karate Kid” remake, “The Pursuit of Happyness”) opens the story with a near unintelligible voice-over narration with some mishmash about how a thousand years before all humans were evacuated from Earth because the environment had become uninhabitable (critic on board so far) and then some predatory monsters evolved (still with you) who are blind but track by smelling fear (starting to lose me) and can only be defeated by “ghost fighters” who somehow are not afraid to fight them but still haven’t figured out that with all the cool technology they have invented, it might be good to have some sort of phaser-style assault weapon rather than continuing to fight them with what are basically cavemen-style spears, or technology of 20,000 years ago (critic has left the building).  Will Smith has done to Jaden with this movie what Rebecca Black’s parents did to her with “Friday.”  At about 50,000 times the cost.

You can see where this comes from.  Will Smith is credited with the idea, and it is structured as an allegory for the wrenching moment of parenting he is at with his son, that precarious balance between wanting to protect them and needing them to have the courage, integrity, and skill to take care of themselves.  Smith senior plays  General Cypher Raige (these names are really over the top), a taciturn, demanding man who has spent more of his son’s life away from home than with him.  Jaden Smith plays Cypher’s son Kitai, who, just as his father is returning home is notified that he has not qualified as a cadet.  He is desperate to prove himself to his father, but due to a past trauma that will be revealed in great detail, is not sure of himself.  Cypher decides the thing to do is to bring Kitai along on movie cliché number three, the “one last mission.”  And, in movie cliché number two, something unexpectedly goes very, very wrong.  And in movie cliché number one, two people who don’t know each other very well learn to respect and appreciate one another.

The spaceship crashes, everyone else is killed, Cypher is injured badly, and the only way for them to survive is for Kitai to make a very dangerous trip, by himself, to a remote location, so ET can phone home and they can get rescued.  This is the part of the movie where the characters lay out the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), so we can see how they play out over the rest of the story.  Are the little ampules for coating the lungs so Kitai can breath absolutely necessary?  (Props to the foley team here; the sound these little disks make as he sucks them in are excellent.)  Well, somehow Kitai will have to face a shortage.  Is the holographic communications system attached to Kitai’s sleeve the only way his father can direct him to the communications disk that is their only hope of calling for help?  Somehow it will have to break.  And then there are the creatures “all evolved to kill humans” Kitai will run into along the way, plus various other difficulties, one requiring a “Pulp Fiction”-esque injection into the heart.

I have cherished the notion, as M. Night Shyamalan has gone from skillful, absorbing films like “The Sixth Sense” to gimmicky and increasingly self-aggrandizing claptrap (“Lady in the Water,” “The Last Airbender”) that some day we would again see his gift for cinematic storytelling.  At times, he has shown an almost Spielbergian understanding of the language of film.  But here, even his camera placement is pedestrian.  And it is almost as though he sets out to make the worst possible use of his actors.  Will Smith’s endless appeal comes from his energy and charm.  All of that is tamped down here as he plays a rigid officer who cannot seem to decide if he is talking to his son or issuing orders.  Jaden Smith showed himself to be a gifted performer with a nice easiness on camera, but here he is poorly directed.  A far better director and a more experienced actor would have a hard time making so much time alone on screen work.  Even Tom Hanks had Wilson to talk to.  By the time we get to the monster, it is just a relief to know it is almost over.

Parents should know that this film includes pervasive peril and violence, human and animal characters in peril, injured, and killed, some graphic injuries and dead bodies, family member gored by scary monster, snake, spider, falls, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion:  How does Moby Dick relate to this story?  What do we learn from the way the characters evaluate their resources and options?  Do you agree with the General’s distinction between danger and fear?

If you like this, try: “Enemy Mine”

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Action/Adventure Science-Fiction

Now You See Me

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action, and sexual content
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Action-style violence, characters in peril, references to sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2013
Date Released to DVD: September 2, 2013 ASIN: B00DWZHTRW

now-you-see-me-castThe most purely entertaining movie of the year so far is “Now You See Me,” and like all great magic tricks, it makes us delighted to be fooled.   We are warned from the very beginning that the closer we look, the less we will see, but even on the alert for the magician’s tools of misdirection and mirrors, it keeps us happily guessing until the very last second.  We might suspect the why, but the who and the how are another story.  One of the magicians tells us that stage magic is deception designed to entertain, delight, and inspire, and that’s just what this movie does.

Four magicians with four very different styles, all very independent, rather arrogant, and very competitive but none at the top of their field are brought together in a most mysterious manner, and the next thing we know, they are headlining in a huge arena sponsored by a multi-millionaire named Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). The master of close-up magic and card tricks is J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is the specialist at hypnosis (and post-hypnotic suggestion). Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is an escape artist. And Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a pickpocket and locksmith. The very fine line between trickery and outright con is crossed now and then as we meet our heroes, or possibly, anti-heroes.

In their big, bravura, very polished show, they announce they are going to rob a bank where someone in the audience has an account. The man they select at random(?) is French. Is that a setback? Au contraire! The next thing we see or think we see is the Frenchman magically transported to Paris, inside the bank’s safe — just as it is about to open for business because Paris is seven hours ahead. And then, the money appears, and the magicians generously distribute it to the audience.

A French agent from Interpol (Mélanie Laurant of “Beginners” as Alma Dray — names are not this movie’s strong point) and a cranky agent from the FBI (is there any other kind?) named Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) team up to investigate.  A professional debunker of magicians (a la The Amazing Randi) played by Morgan Freeman provides some guidance — or is that just more misdirection?

It would be wrong to say any more.  Just go see it to enjoy the tricks and the great performances and directions that are real movie magic.

Parents should know that this movie includes some strong language (a crude insult, f-word), characters in peril, drinking, and sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What clues did you miss? Which kind of magic would you like to be able to do?

If you like this, try: “The Illusionist” and “Oceans 11”

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Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Mystery

Interview with Ryan Simpkins of “Space Warriors” (and a Chance to Win A Trip to Space Camp)

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Space Warriors is the story of a group of extraordinary teens recruited for Space Camp, who battle for their chance to win a seat in the next shuttle to space, and learn the importance of teamwork, dedication and friendship when they get called in to save some stranded astronauts.  It stars Thomas Horn (Extremely Loud Incredibly Close), Booboo Stewart (Twilight), Grayson Russell (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Savannah Jayde (Big Time Rush) and Ryan Simpkins (A Single ManRevolutionary Road).  The movie premieres on Friday, May 31st at 8/7c on the Hallmark Channel.   I am proud to present an exclusive clip.

Viewers can win a free trip to Space Camp by signing up now, and tuning into The Hallmark Channel on Friday 8/7c to find the secret keyword on screen.

I interviewed Ryan Simpkins about making the movie.

What’s the scariest part of Space Camp?

Well space camp isn’t really that scary, because everything is super safe and there are people there to help you no matter what. That being said, there was this one simulator that spun you around in a huge circle and it would slowly get faster and faster. It would come to a point where you couldn’t even lift your arms or open your mouth! The only fear I had was the fear of throwing up, and that was just because it was so hot in there.


What’s the most fun?

I really liked the scuba diving. It really feels like you’re just flying or floating. We played basketball with a bowling ball (I accidentally dropped it on Michael’s head, but he didn’t even feel it)! I also lifted a two ton ball above my own head down there. We were doing flips and flying around- it was amazing. I also quite liked our jumpsuits. We didn’t have pockets to put our hands in, so we just held them at our collar as if we were Bane from The Dark Night Rises. We also looked like we were in Starfleet Academy cadets from Star Trek. That was nice.


If you were an astronaut, which job would you want?

I would probably want to be in charge of the robots. I don’t know why, it just seems cool. I have a lot of friends who build robots in school and then go to competitions and compete, and they absolutely love it.


What are the most important things an astronaut has to know?

I think they really have to know how to work together as a team. There is one part of the film where the Warriors get in a huge fight and completely blow a mission. They failed and they had to pay for it. There is another part where the astronauts are making an extremely important decision and they have to draw straws. They don’t fight about who wins the game of straws, or say that it was unfair, they just work together to keep each other safe.


What are the most important qualities an astronaut has to have?

They have to stay humble and know how to work together, or else their egos will get in the way of getting the job done and doing it right.


What surprised you the most in what you learned about the space program?

I had no idea that they had moon buggy races. It wasn’t in the original script and it hadn’t been written in until about half way through the shoot, and no one ever mentioned it because they just assumed everyone knew. It’s actually a huge part of space camp training. I was lucky enough to actually go and see some of the races when I went back for the premiere. It’s pretty intense stuff.


What did you and the other kids do to have fun while you were making the movie?

We did lots of things. Every night after filming, we wouldd go up to the fifth floor where they served food and we would play games like Janga or Uno and watch the Olympics together. When we were done we’d head down to the pool and swim for hours; playing Marco Polo, Football, or just throwing a penny into the pool and searching for it. We all went to see The Dark Night Rises in the Imax Space Center Theater, and I forced them all to see The Avengers (it was my 7th time seeing it. I love that movie). We also went to this Safari that you could drive through and the animals would come right up to your car. On the night of the premiere we had this giant sleepover and stayed up till three in the morning watching The Hobbit, some of the behind the scenes footage, having pillow fights, and eating junk food. We also watched LOTS of Netflix. I love that cast more than anything.


What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?

Acting is always a challenge. A great man told me that. It’s never going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go for it.

What makes you laugh?

Bad puns. I’ll go back and watch Avatar: The Last Airbender and Sokka will tell a joke that I thought was the dumbest thing when I was little but I’ll die from laughter watching it now. I don’t know why but bad jokes just make me cry from laughing. Also Edgar Wright movies. I will laugh the entire time while watching one of those.



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Stories About Kids Teenagers Television

Interview: Thomas Horn of “Space Warriors”

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 8:00 am

Thomas Horn, Jeopardy champion and star of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” appears in this week’s “Space Warriors.”  The movie premieres on Friday, May 31st at 8/7c on the Hallmark Channel and co-stars Ryan Simpkins, Danny Glover, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, and Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino.

Viewers can win a free trip to Space Camp by signing up now, and tuning into The Hallmark Channel on Friday 8/7c to find the secret keyword on screen.

Thomas Horn was nice enough to answer my questions:

What’s the scariest part of Space Camp?

I used a simulator called the multi-axis trainer that spins riders’ bodies in multiple axes, as the name suggests. Its a little bit nauseating and scary to watch, but it is less unpleasant than it looks.

What’s the most fun?

Conducting the space mission is definitely the most fun part of the camp, because you get to put what you have learned into practice. You get a feeling for what it is like to actually operate a spacecraft

If you were an astronaut, which job would you want?

I would want to be the mission commander, because they get to be in charge and make the final decisions on the spacecraft. It is the most difficult job, but also the most important.

What are the most important things an astronaut has to know?

As far as I know, an astronaut needs to be very familiar with physics and chemistry in general. Astronauts also have to know a large number of ordinary and emergency procedures. 

What are the most important qualities an astronaut has to have?

An astronaut has to be clever and decisive, but also patient. They have to be hardworking, physically fit, and good team players. For my character in the film, this last requirement is the hardest.

What surprised you the most in what you learned about the space program?

I was really surprised when I heard that the astronauts returning from the Apollo missions had to land in the ocean, but couldn’t aim themselves very well, so they sometimes had to wait for hours to be picked up by a ship. That’s bravery.

What did you and the other kids do to have fun while you were making the movie?

We did a lot of swimming in the hotel pool (temperatures were 90+ for all but 2 days during the shoot), and we saw a lot of movies, including two in which my co-stars acted!

What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?

Be natural. 

What makes you laugh?

Jokes are great, but the funniest moments are always accidental.

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Actors Interview Science-Fiction Television

Interview: Jesse Eisenberg of “Now You See Me”

Posted on May 29, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Rio”) stars in one of the most entertaining films of the year, “Now You See Me,” the story of a group of magicians who rob a bank.  It co-stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Isla Fisher, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurant, and Woody Harrelson.  It keeps you guessing — and smiling — until the very last minute.  Eisenberg sat down with a small group of journalists in Washington, D.C.  to talk about the film.  He has an electric intellectual energy, very quick, very smart, very witty, with much of the intensity he brings to his roles, and it was fascinating to see him engage so wholeheartedly with our questions with such boundless curiosity that he came up with questions of his own for us.  He made us immediately feel like we were part of a conversation that we wished could go on all day.

“When I first read the script,” he told us, “I wanted to play my character more like David Blaine.  My character is like a street magician in the script, so I thought, very casual, dress like regular clothing.  But the director wanted to have a more flashy style.  So the whole aesthetic for the magicians is like they’re these cool magicians of the future and they do tricks that could be done in five years.  That was actually the rubric that we used — all this magic could be done in five years.  It’s actually not possible now, but it will be possible, with the governing laws of the universe, these could be done.”  nowyouseemeHe talked to us about trying to learn to perform some of the tricks himself. “I play a character who is one of the best slight of hand magicians in the world, so he would have been practicing for 25 years and I had just four weeks to practice before shooting and then four months while we were shooting to perfect the tricks that were going to be done at the end of the movie. So, I learned some basic slight of hand tricks, like a snap change.  I could so some smaller, less complicated, less impressive tricks fairly well.  There’s a scene where I’m handcuffed to the table, and there are these twin brothers named Dan and Dave Buck, and they are the best card flourishers in the world, just incredible.  They can make a cascade or waterfall and the cards look like they’re tied together.  It’s beautiful.  So they superimposed their hands over my body in that scene.  So, there are a lot of computer effects, but it’s not because the magic can’t be done; it’s because we couldn’t do them.  Where I’m shuffling those cards, they superimpose their hands over my body, but it’s magic that can actually be done because they’re doing it live.”  If he could do any style of magic tricks, he would do close-up magic, slight-of-hand.  “It’s the most impressive thing.  Also, I bite my nails, and probably if I did card tricks I would have better nails.”

Eisenberg talked about playing a cool, confident character, a contrast to some of his other roles, where he plays an insecure or nerdy role.  “They sent me the script when I was appearing in a play and had a lot of stage fright performing every night.  When I read the script, I thought that this character feels more comfortable on stage than anywhere else.  He’s so confident.  And I thought this would be a good way for me to challenge myself to play a certain kind of character that might be therapeutic in a way and make me feel confident on stage and in my personal life.  And it worked — while we were filming I was feeling really good about myself and had a four month break from my own dumb neuroses.  I was sleeping, I was eating — I had an avocado one day!  It was a fun experience.  It wasn’t difficult for me.  Whenever I take on a role, I find it easy to get into the role.  Once I’m there, there’s like little challenges along the way.”  He does not worry about being type-cast. “Sometimes, when you’re an actor, you get thought of for certain things and that’s what you end up playing.  And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  If you can play one thing well, you’re a successful actor, because most actors can’t play one thing well.”  But he says he is glad he is being sent a greater variety of roles now.  When he was not happy with what he was being sent, he wrote a play to create his own part.

He said he thought his character in this film “had an air of superiority when he was five years old and then found himself alone in his bedroom and had a deck of cards and found he was good at it and liked doing it and isolated himself and became focused on his work and became great at what he does and is now the best in the world.  And then he gets teamed up with these three other characters who also felt like they were the best.  And now they’re all kind of competing with each other but they have to work together.  I think he feels kind of annoyed by having to work with them.”  He talked about working with the cast members who play the other magicians.  The actors and their characters have very different skills and styles.  “I knew Woody Harrelson, and he likes to bring his own sensibility to roles, even dramatic roles, and I like to do the same thing.  But I didn’t realize how funny Isla and Dave were.  Most of the time, the characters are talking to each other, but we have three big performances.  We’d film them over the course of a week, sixteen hour days, very long days.  It gets repetitive after a while.  Because we all had a sense of humor and we had an audience that was a very patient group of New Orleans extras, we would really perform for them.  A lot of our off-the-cuff remarks and our personal chemistry made it into the movie.  That came just out of trying to keep each other entertained.  I suppose there’s a version where the actors try to entertain each other and it’s alienating or annoying to the audience.  But we had a good director who knows how to control the set and good actors who know when to stop trying to be funny and do the scene for real and push the plot forward and do the things you need to do for the story.  The movie is better for it.”

He was impressed with the “visually arresting” style of director Louis Leterrier, “a great visual filmmaker,” who kept a lot of energy in the performance scenes, making them feel like live shows.  He described how, in the one set in New Orleans, “in the first shot, the camera’s on a cable and it circles around us and there’s maybe a three-minute shot, which in movie terms is epic, and then goes to a close-up of Morgan Freeman.”

He said he’s getting “a little better” at feeling that he knows what he is doing.  He had just finished a play , and he said that even after the 79th performance out of 80, he still agonized before each curtain.  So did his co-star, Vanessa Redgrave.  “She’s like the greatest actress in the world.  And both of us would get there at 3 for an 8:00 show and start panicking.  I thought, ‘Maybe it does get easier,’ and then I met her and she is still worried about making sure it’s right.  I asked my father about this, and he said, ‘Maybe if you care about what you do, then it will always be hard because you set a high standard for yourself.’  I still feel very nervous.  That said, when I was playing this character, I felt really confident.  I think the personality of the character starts to infect how you feel about it.  In the play I just did, the character is a very angry guy who hates himself, so I was feeling all those feelings, and Vanessa’s character was this tortured older woman, so she was maybe feeling that, too.  I supposed if we were playing really happy, confident people who liked ourselves and each other, we might have had a better experience and gotten to the theater a little bit later.”

It is important, he said, to work with people who are “trying to take it seriously, treating it with respect and not just get trying to get something made or make money.  That’s actually kind of a rare thing.  Even a movie like this, a big-budget movie, when I first met with Louis Leterrier, I asked him what he was thinking of for the acting and he gave me all these French art films, with the most dramatic, terrifying acting I’ve ever seen, and I thought ‘This is a great opportunity, to be in a bigger movie where someone really wants to see good acting, to do your job well.'”

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Actors Interview
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