Friday, May 31, 2013

THIS IS THE END Showcases Heart, Along With Other Vital Organs

THIS IS THE END (dir. Rogen/Goldberg, 2013)

Not since the 1963 Hayley Mills classic "Summer Magic" has a movie featuring a horned, horny Satanic beast with a giant wang also exuded such genuine warmth.

Don't get me wrong. "This Is The End" is absolutely scatologicalA severed head finds itself Beckham-ed around the room. Lengthy conversations are had regarding a man's right and demand to deposit semen wherever he pleases. Michael Cera plays a coked-up, sex-crazed version of himself who enjoys the kind of tossed salad you don't top with dressing. That's the delivery method. But it's not the package.

Best known as a team for their "Superbad" and "Pineapple Express" screenplays, writers/directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg specialize in tales of maturity-challenged people facing the truth that relationships they thought they understood might in fact be holding them back. Some of their works are forgettable ("Drillbit Taylor" won't be shown at any Oscar retrospectives). Some are minor comedy treasures. But they've built a voice that is uniquely their own. It stands for something. And one thing you know you'll never find in their pictures is meanness. Characters sometimes operate without a moral compass, but you always get the sense they're aiming for something higher.

In its own way, then, "This Is The End" feels like the movie they've been building to their entire careers - a dividing line between what came before and what's to come. On paper it sounds like a self-indulgent prank they conned the studio into letting them make. With all major actors in the movie playing themselves, Jay Baruchel visits his old "Undeclared" costar Rogen in Los Angeles, hoping for nothing more than a few quiet days of smoking weed and playing video games with his friend, montage-style. Rogen, however, drags him to a party at James Franco's house, a Hollywood scene Baruchel can't buy into. Before Franco can impress upon him any more half-baked theories on why everything is art, however, the apocalypse strikes, and along with Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, they struggle to stay alive.

God, how many ways that "real friends hanging out" concept could fall flat and even feel insulting. A sort of "Grown Ups" for actors who shun the PG-13 rating, forcing us to watch people more successful that ourselves have the good time we're not. Two important things work in Goldberg and Rogen's favor, though. First, the movie is bracingly, gut-bustingly funny. Learning from their mentor Judd Apatow that sometimes it's best to just point the camera at talented people and let it roll, these guys fly on the natural rapport that only they enjoy. Laughs hit like out of an assembly line, fast and fierce.

Second, and more important, "This Is The End" utilizes the shared history we know between these people. Everyone coulda played original characters dropped in the same basic concept, and they could tell the same story. But they wouldn't have the same movie. What ultimately concerns "This Is The End" is a friendship between two people (Rogen and Baruchel) who came up in their field together and now feel themselves drifting apart. They don't want to admit it. To do so would also admit their friendship no longer holds the same value it does in their memories. But at this vital point in their lives, they must take stock of who they are. Who they once were and who they've become. Their shortcomings and outright failures. How maybe the best version of themselves doesn't involve the other person.  

Those same friendships that constrain us, though, can also be our salvation. They connect us to who we once were, they remind us of the person we dreamed of becoming and assumed we'd become, and they can ultimately save us.

On the profundity level, this doesn't exactly approach Ingmar Bergman. Sincerity can sell a movie like little else can, however, and "This Is The End" hits with a shocking resonance.. Maybe this started as a hang-out showcase, but Rogen and Goldberg pursue the opportunity to honestly explore feelings festering inside them. If this movie winds up one of the sweetest of the summer, it's because they meant it.

Look, it's a silly summer comedy. I know. You can enjoy "This Is The End" on whatever level you want. Want to frame it as an inside-baseball showbiz comedy with real actors taking potshots at each other? It's more than happy to comply. Prefer it through the Edgar Wright model of comedies that both send-up and honor their genre? This movie has you covered - although its budget ain't large, you can see the money on screen a few times, and some events in the third act are bug-nuts crazy.

Rogen and Goldberg are clearly firm believes in comedy found in the absurd and the awful, but they also realize there's zero reason you can't throw heart in there too, all side by side, mixing in each other's goo. This movie's such a nimble comedy, tautly paced, zany and full of life. A real gem.

("This Is The End" opens everywhere on June 12th.)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Welcome To AFTER EARF, Etc, Yawn

AFTER EARTH (dir. Shyamalan, 2013)

 At least when most parents force photos of their children upon you, they don't do it through a $130 million flip book.

Ultimately, that's all "After Earth" is: a cynical embodiment of Will Smith's expectations for us to buy tickets and watch his son. To frame it that way even makes me feel cynical. I don't want to bash a father for spending time with his kids and bringing them success. I don't want to bash a 14-year-old boy for being born into a world and following in his dad's (lucrative) footsteps. But them's the cards we're dealt.

Eh. I still feel mean. And believe me, there are so many other ways to bash "After Earth," a movie that would aspire to mediocrity if it weren't so damned lazy. Based on an original idea from Big Poppa Smith himself (possibly while watching an episode of "Survivorman" and remembering, "Hey, I sometimes do sci-fi too, and so forth"), it starts with crushingly bland exposition where Earth is rendered uninhabitable for humans and we fled to a planet outside our solar system. How convenient that we find a place that remove that's also breath-able, but here is a movie that doesn't stop to consider things.

Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), a teenager with a lack of discipline you best bet will be honed later, dreams of joining the peacekeeping Ranger Corps, led by his father, the stoic Cypher (Big Willie). They're on a mission to Earth. Their ship crashes. Father and son are the sole survivors, with Cypher too injured to walk. Kitai must travel alone to the tail of the ship, 100 kilometers away, to retrieve a MacGuffin that's not important to understand, facing creatures evolved to deadly extremes. All this while Cypher directs him from within the ship.

Overall not a bad premise, right? Clean and solid. Maybe not the stuff classic sci-fi is made from, but certainly better than classic SyFy. The buried lede of "After Earth," though, is this ain't a sweeping summer blockbuster. Instead it delivers a shockingly, oddly intimate work that lives mostly in tight close-ups and scenes set in dirty forests, shunning any sense of sweep. No one passes ruined landmarks. No one ruminates on the Earth that once was. This movie is about a brute quest for survival, a character study with a budget.

That isn't necessarily a criticism. Any movie can be whatever it wants. Like a man strutting down the boardwalk, though, you gotta own it. The premise of "After Earth" (and the movie it seems to occasionally strive to be) demands some genuine sense of wonder, some kind of astonishment or awesomeness, none of which it brings to the table. Is this a survivalist picture set in the future? Is it a big-budget action fest? There's an odd duality at play here, two different, potentially interesting pictures struggling to break out, and both falling flat.

Here's an exercise few blockbuster filmmakers seem to try: Imagine what it would actually be like to live in your movie. Imagine what the world would really look like. Imagine how it would feel. Imagine how your characters would legitimately react to things. "After Earth" supposes a version of our planet where humans can't survive. The air chokes us. The creatures evolved after our departure are vicious. Maybe this is all sumptuous - natural elements returning to dominance. Maybe it's like the city of Baltimore, falling so beautifully. Maybe it's dark and horrific. But dammit, follow through. Besides a monster and a few monkeys made from CGI pulled straight outta "Jumanji," "After Earth" looks disappointingly like the world we know now. As if "The Wizard Of Oz" just took place in the farmhouse next to Dorothy's.

So what director-for-hire crafted this soulless endeavor? What filmmaker grew frustrated shooting late night infomercials and needed a feature to prove to his parents that film school wasn't a waste? M. Night Shyamalan! The guy whose movies studios used to market as, "From the director of 'The Sixth Sense' and "Signs,'" until now, when his name might as well be buried deep within the credits as, "Directed by M. Night Shyamalan...we won't tell if you won't." God knows the man's directed bad movies before, to the point where it's expected of him. There's a curve, however, that demonstrates the correlation of a movie's badness and a movie's enjoyment. "After Earth" completes his journey from the embarrassingly bad down to that slump of the curve, the blandly bad.

What happened to him? He once seemed a possible heir to Hitchcock or Spielberg, neither one a bad place to be. He once conjured suspense and terror and thrills and wonder out of thin air. Even when his name became synonymous with the terrible, at least it was a ballsy kind of terrible. Now he directs with the personal touch of a customer call center halfway around the world.

There's simply no spark to this movie. No life. No moments linger in our minds. It's just stuff on the screen. Even the normally charismatic elder Smith is oddly restrained, delivering most of his performance in a chair alone, as if he purposefully throws the movie to make his son seem less like he reads his lines from cue cards. Clearly the whole thing was conceived to be a self-fulfilling prophecy - young boy venturing into the scary world without his father, a world of beasts and volcanoes and $20 million paychecks.

Lets not be surprised, then, with Will's upcoming press release announcing Jaden as the star of a Sam Kinison biopic. It's not about what's right. It's their post-apocalyptic world. We're just living in it.