Words: Maxamillian John
No critic knows pain like a DVD columnist. Films that make it to your local cinema are already in the minority by virtue of securing a distribution deal, and most of those are still rubbish, so imagine what I have to put up with while I trawl each week's releases looking for something other than straight-to-DVD and no budget fillers. And often it doesn't work. This week, as I sat through 'After Earth' (spoiler alert: it blows) and 'The Big Wedding' (it's worse), I genuinely started to question my life. Thank god for 'Like Someone In Love', which was an absolute joy and reminded me why I do this.
M. Night Shyamalan's 'After Earth' (★½) stars Will Smith and his son, Jaden, in a sci-fi action film that attempts so little it's impressive that it still manages to underachieve. In the future, Will and Jaden crash land on an abandoned Earth, where 'everything has evolved to kill humans' for reasons unstated. With Will's legs and a distress beacon broken in the crash, Jaden has to trek 100km over hostile terrain to reach the broken tail of the starship where the second distress beacon lies. Why does this starship only have two distress beacons? Why didn't they send a 'Mayday' call out as they were crashing? These are the questions you can’t afford to ask if you want to get through 'After Earth' a happy viewer.
Jaden spends a lot of time gazing at Earth's wondrous landscapes and wildlife, now blossomed into splendour with mankind's absence. The problem is that it's all CGI, so what we're really seeing is Jaden gawping at a green wall, and it's tough to shake that image even as the film rolls. I'm not saying that digital landscapes can't be beautiful - there are plenty of videogames which show otherwise. But the CGI isn't nearly realistic enough to sit seamlessly with the live-action footage, so asking us to suspend disbelief, treating these two styles as one fabric and empathising with Jaden, it's not really possible. It creates a disconnect between his character and the viewers which is later exacerbated by the fact that he's just so damned incompetent.
Incompetent and whiny. And yet not even convincing! It feels slightly unfair to criticise a child who might only have become an actor out of familial duty, but since it's exclusively Will and Jaden on screen for the majority of the film his casting affects everything, and I'm left wondering how a real life father and son can have so little rapport. Their family dinners must be impossibly awkward.
After Shyamalan's miserly employment of acting talent, 'The Big Wedding' (★) presents us with a stacked cast. Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton are a divorced couple who must pretend to still be married due to their adopted son's biological-mother's Catholic hangups about the sin of divorce. His upcoming wedding brings the whole dysfunctional family together, and revelations about their past tear them apart again. Katherine Heigl, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams are amongst the other imposing stars lending their gifts to this comprehensive misfire of a comedy.
The lazy, vapid jokes are accompanied by a relentless soundtrack of plinky-plonk comedy music, as if to beat a sense of whimsy into you. The physical jokes never graduate beyond people falling over or vomiting, and the verbal humour is equivalently base. "Haven't seen this much tail around here since the last poochy died" says De Niro at one point. That's the level we're dealing with here. And just when you think writer-director Justin Zackham can't surrender any more dignity, he introduces the verb 'boink' as a lower-rating substitute for 'fuck'.
None of the cast are tested in any way, in fact many appear to be phoning in their performances in between more ambitious projects. Good for them. Take the money and run. The degree of pasteurizing and patronising on display here is galling without even mentioning the odious scenes where homosexuality is referred to as a 'fetish' or where we're treated to some gratuitous comedy-racism. Well 'boink' you, Justin Zackham.
But then we have 'Like Someone In Love' (★★★★½). Living legend Abbas Kiarostami has ventured outside his native Iran for only the second time in his career, this time to Japan, bringing us a snapshot into the life of Rin Takanashi's university student, who works as an escort by night. And while it's certainly fairly depressing there's a lot of room for love in there too.
As far as the plot goes, there's not much to tell. The whole film takes place in less than 24 hours, and it's more about meeting characters and discovering their humanity than anything high-concept or narratologically complex. We meet Tadashi Okuno's elderly lecturer, who hires Takanashi for someone to talk to, his intrusive neighbour, and Ryō Kase as Takanashi's volatile fiancé. The hopes and failings of all them interweave, but Kiarostami doesn't venture commentary on them. We're presented with facts rather than with parables.
After the ham-fisted directing of recent releases like 'After Earth' and 'Sharknado', Kiarostami's camerawork is invigorating in its assurance and minimalism. It's refreshing to see a conversation in which the director doesn't feel the need to keep on cutting. Kiarostami knows exactly what he wants on the screen before he starts shooting, and he has the competence and experience to get exactly what he wants. That's not to say that it's visually uninteresting - even with static shots variety is maintained throughout the film with some very clever use of reflections.
'After Earth' uses bad CGI action to moralise on conquering your fear, and resubmits the banal glorification of willpower and nihilism as a force strong enough to overcome your very physiology. 'The Big Wedding', which is still worse, uses awful attempts at humour to moralise on the importance of family, and resubmits the platitude of being honest with each other and yourself. Only the tragic, heartwarming 'Like Someone In Love' has the audacity to not tell you what to think, and yet it has more to say than any of the contrived, underachieving releases joining it this week.
Read previous DVD Digests here. Find more from Maxamillian at @maxltj.