It's pretty rare that an auteur filmmaker with inherent talent who comes out of the gate with a mega-hit winds up flaming out as spectacularly as M. Night Shyamalan has. Everyone loved The Sixth Sense because it was memorable, well-made, creepy and had a great twist ending that became a sort of cultural marker. All of which set the bar disproportionately high for whatever came next.
What came next was Unbreakable, considered by mass audiences to be a letdown: though more discerning viewers caught the sophistication of Night's superhero deconstruction, not to mention the fine performances he captured from Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson in truly unique roles. Followed up by Signs, his creepy, if ultimately compromised tale of alien invaders overtaking Earth (why would aliens who can be killed by water invade a planet covered in it?), Night was enjoying a fairly solid run of varied and entertaining work.
Then, for whatever reason, he started losing his shit entirely.
With 2004's The Village, he tried to re-appropriate the twist ending slight-of-hand from The Sixth Sense, though this time with a ponderous story whose resolution landed like a mallet to the balls. His next, Lady in the Water, was a self-referential indictment of his critics swathed in a bedtime fable. It became clear that Night was letting his ego infuse his creative decisions instead of good ideas.
This Is The Story All About How My Earth Got Flipped, Turned Upside-Down. Jaden Smith picks up where dad left off in After Earth. Except no Carlton. Bummer.
And then The Happening... happened. Ostensibly an environmental horror flick that finds the world's trees getting revenge on humans, the silly premise was bolstered by cartoonish violence and a lead performance from Mark Wahlberg that's so inexplicably bad it should require a drinking game. The Happening wound up being one of the funniest films of 2008. A scene with Wahlberg suspiciously questioning a plastic houseplant is worth the price of the rental alone.
After 2010's The Last Airbender tanked, it was generally assumed that Shyamalan had used up his nine cinematic lives. We should be so lucky.
But thanks to Will Smith, Shyamalan has been resurrected once again with After Earth.
In the not-too-distant future, humanity, owing to human-induced climate change, must relocate to new digs, a planet outside of the solar system called Nova Prime. A thousand years later the human colonists are nearly conquered by an alien race whose weapons are called Ursas, bloodthirsty, Lovecraftian freaks of nature that, while essentially blind, can sense their prey through pheromones excreted due to fear.
General Cypher Raige (Will Smith, Men In Black) has learned how to conquer his fear (called "ghosting") and leads the planet's Ranger Corps to victory over the beasts and beating back the alien hordes, though he loses his daughter, Senshi (Zoë Kravitz, X-Men: First Class) in the process. His young son, Kitai (Jaden Smith, The Karate Kid), ashamed that he was helpless to save his sister, joins the Rangers to become a hardass like his dad. Unfortunately, the clear chip on his shoulder gets in the way of his advancement.
Cypher, getting sick of life in space, decides to retire to spend more time with his family and learn how to become a father. To that end, his wife, Faia (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda) recommends that he take young Kitai with him on his final mission: training recruits by fighting a captured Ursa on a distant planet.
But when their ship is damaged by a freak (read: had to happen) meteor shower, they wind up crash landing on Earth, now a quarantined planet where "all life has evolved to kill humans." Badly wounded, Cypher must send Kitai into the wilderness to find the severed tail of their ship, which holds a beacon that can save their lives.
While not a total disaster (those calling it such have clearly never seen Battlefield: Earth), After Earth is, nonetheless, riddled with plot holes and weightless storytelling that has all the suspense of M*A*S*H* rerun.
Written by Shyamalan (from a story by Big Willy that is clearly meant as a vehicle for his son's nascent career) almost nothing makes sense. The Ursas attack when they can smell pheromones -- indeed, Kitai survives the attack that kills his sister by hiding in a tiny atrium -- so why didn't everyone just wear all-encompassing battle suits that blind the beasts? Or maybe just wear a shit-ton of Drakkar Noir? While the air on earth is sufficiently altered to make breathing almost impossible for humans (a problem solved by breathing liquid that maximizes oxygen extraction) species on earth, generally, aren't much different. Nor are they more dangerous to humans than they would be in any wilderness situation -- far from having entirely evolved to kill humans. And since there hasn't been anyone on Earth for over a thousand years, where would it get the practice, anyway?
Meanwhile, the densely forested planet sinks to subzero temperatures every night, with only small thermal pockets where nothing freezes solid. Yet life seems abundant, from baboons to giant birds to poison leeches to feral pigs that all should have been popsicles long ago.
There are some bright spots. Will Smith delivers an oddly deep performance (clipped accent and all) as Cypher, though he spends most of the film slowly dying. His offspring, Jaden, doesn't fare quite as well. He's by no means bad (though his first scenes had me wondering) but he's limited to a couple of expressions. He's still probably got a bigger career ahead of him than his paler counterpart, Colin Hanks.
The look of the film, drenched in CG beasts and questionable compositing, is capable enough at creating a world -- even if much of it looks like Northern California -- and the tech of the future is neatly designed and appropriately functional. Clearly, more thought went into the art design than the script.
But while the Smith and Son sell it to the back row, Night is still phoning it in. I'm not sure what it would take for him to get excited about making films again, much less making a good one, but at this point he's the directorial equivalent of Harrison Ford; doing a job he doesn't even really seem to like anymore.
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's
Feathers Are The New Black. A fashionista who mistook an icicle for a rectal thermometer waxes nostalgic in Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf ’s.
I don't care about fashion. If you've seen the way I dress, that much is pretty clear. But being a New York native, even I have heard of the famed department store Bergdorf Goodman's, built on the grave of the old Vanderbilt palace on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. You've seen Bergdorf's before too; taking up an entire block in the background of many a New York-shot film shadowing Central Park, a spacious paradise of high-priced couture that has been patronized by both Hollywood and actual royalty. Its consultants have dressed presidents. For would-be fashion designers, it's the Holy Grail of department stores. Get into Bergdorf's, and you have arrived.
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's is an infomercial of the famed fashion mecca, masquerading as a documentary. There's almost nothing here to really review. Do you like fashion, $6,000 shoes, impossibly rarefied style gurus, and tales of celebrity from days gone by? You'll like this. For anyone else, it's a tedious series of famous talking heads waxing rhapsodic about the venerable establishment -- bookended by the efforts of window dresser David Hoey as his team creates five holiday-themed emplacements in the run-up to the Christmas shopping season.
The cast list is extensive, from famed designers like Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, Georgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld to famous clientele Susan Lucci, Candice Bergen, Joan Rivers and producer Jean Doumanian (a long time Woody Allen collaborator in whose films Bergdorf's has itself made an occasional appearance). They all supply glowing, gushing approval of the towering palace and its founders while relating bits of cultural trivia.
There are a few interesting anecdotes to be had, and some of the historical stuff is fascinating (you're never going to lose my attention talking about the history of turn-of-the-century Manhattan). But the overall effect of watching a 90-minute ad for a store whose merchandise is beyond the reach of those outside of the proverbial One Percent is pervasive.
Interleaved with some fine old photography, the look of Bergdorf's is matter-of-fact digital video, shot without nearly as much finesse as the subject matter possesses. There is some nice art, fashion and interesting faces on display but visually Bergdorf's never rises to the same level of artistry. It feels like it was created at the hands of the marketing department, as opposed to an actual story teller.
Maybe that's your sort of thing, but I never was much into watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, either. As a result, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's has a distancing effect that, instead of fawning over perks of the better half, left me wondering if we were even a part of the same species.
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