I've recently seen two new-release movies that are worth talking about, although for different reasons. First, I'll discuss the new Will Smith vehicle After Earth and then I'll discuss the new magician-sting flick Now You See Me.
After Earth has a lot riding on it. It's a father-son journey-to-discovery science-fiction picture and that's a lot of hyphens to cover. The movie stars both Will Smith as the heroic-to-a-fault father who can't seem to connect with his teenage trying-so-hard-to-impress-Dad son, played by his real life son, Jaden Smith. It's directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who's got a few things to prove. While Shyamalan's career had a meteoric beginning, his reliance on improbably plot twists soon hamstrung his work, and his last few movies have been both critical and box-office flops. No wonder his involvement in this picture has been downplayed. Also, it's become quite fashionable to bash the Smith family, which seems to me to be nothing more than people taking cheap shots. All that said, I thought After Earth was a strictly "okay" movie. There's nothing especially awful about it, but it never rises beyond pedestrian science-fiction, either. There are some nice moments and there are some sizable plot holes. Worse, no one really seems to be having any fun - filmmaking is work and here, it seems that everyone's just clocking in. I suspect that Shyamalan (who's working from a Will Smith story) decided to play it super-safe on this one, perhaps seeing After Earth as a babystep back into the limelight. I though the movie had some interesting father-son moments and it's hard to go wrong using Joseph Campbell's concept of the hero's journey as a template. However, After Earth is content to play it safe and therefore, the movie never moves beyond being a rental.
Now You See Me, on the other hand, is a different sort of trick. Boasting an incredible cast (you've seen many of these folks before and the one who's relatively new, Isla Fisher, was last seen as the frowsy mistress in Great Gastsby and is totally different here!) and an intricate plot, this is a film that delights in its mysteries. It's true - they flat-out tell you "the closer you look, the easier it is to fool you" and they're not lying on that score. Magicians and illusionists are fascinating creatures - we know that we're marks, we know that what we're seeing isn't real, yet we love being taken in anyway. Now You See Me toys with us and we love it for that. It's a fun ride, dazzling and - well, magical. Go see it. Try to figure out what's coming. Even when they explain it, you won't believe it could work.