Saturday, 30 November 2013

Letterboxd: V/H/S/2 (2013); AFTER EARTH (2013)

Saturday, 30 November 2013
★★★ (out of five)

The sequel to V/H/S (a sort of a 'found footage' anthology inspired by REC) is better than its predecessor, but only because the four tales cut to the chase much sooner and don't outstay their welcome. V/H/S/2 retains the conceptual problems (VHS being a dead format it's bizarre to imagine anyone still using, and who's editing these stories together?), but it would be churlish to condemn V/H/S/2 for these reasons. All you really need to know is: are these found footage vignettes scary and worth your time? The answer is yes, for the most part.

The framing narrative ("Tape 49", directed by Simon Barrett) is stronger than the first movie's, as two private investigators go looking for a missing college student and discover a stack of VHS tapes in his abandoned home. While one checks the house, the other plays the tapes...

"Phase I – Clinical Trials" from director Adam Wingard (promoted from framing narrative duty on V/H/S) is the least-plausible of the four stories. A patient (Wingard himself) is given a cutting-edge artificial eye that is also recording everything he sees, and discovers the ocular implant enables him to see ghosts. It's THE EYE in the found footage medium, and mostly provided a string of jump-scares when the patient keeps being spooked by ghosts that are haunting his house. Were these ghosts always there, but only now seem to intent on scaring the patient silly because he can see them? I have no idea, as Wingard only really seems interested in his jump-scares. It's the first-person shooter of ghost stories. (★★ out of five)

"A Ride in the Park" from directors Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sánchez (who produced and co-directed THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, respectively), is a more entertaining and creative effort. A cyclist using a helmet-mounted 'Go Pro' camera is attacked by zombies while out riding in a forest, becomes a zombie himself, and continues the cycle (no pun intended). It's simple fun with some decent effects, but I can't remember ever seeing a zombie film told from the POV of a zombie—so that alone makes this a worthwhile watch. (★★★ out of five)

"Safe Haven" is the jewel in V/H/S/2's crown, co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. This will be many people's second encounter with Evans, who directed the fantastic Indonesian action film THE RAID. He proves equally adept with horror and the restraints of the first-person perspective, and "Safe Haven" is the most engrossing story in V/H/S/2's menu. It tells the story of an Indonesian film crew reporting on a cult founded by the so-called 'Father', which has granted them access to their commune. It soon becomes clear that the cult are Satanists with a particular interest in the pregnant fiancé of the news crew's interviewer, and then the whole thing explodes into a white-knuckle roller-coaster of violence, bodily explosions, mutilations, demonic childbirth, shotgun decapitations, and assorted grossness. "Safe Haven" is the best-directed of the four stories and could probably be adapted to feature-length, with the only misstep being the last-scene reveal of a monster that's clearly a winged-goat puppet. (★★★★ out of five)

The final story is "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" from Jason Eisener (HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN), which does exactly what it says on the tin. The naturalism of the actor is really good and there are some creative flourishes to keep you watching (like mounting the camera on a dog for awhile), and the home-invading aliens are suitably creepy and menacing. Unfortunately, it becomes a little repetitive because shit hits the fan quite early and there isn't much plot, but it's entertaining. (★★½ out of five)

Overall, V/H/S/2 should please fans of this genre and has enough memorable moments to satisfy its target audience. I certainly found more pleasure in these four stories than in the original film's quartet, although only "Safe Haven" sticks in the memory. And they really need to work on the framing narrative if a third V/H/S is planned, or ditch that idea entirely. They're pretty weak and it doesn't help matters that the on-screen viewer of each "scary video" never looks in the least bit frightened by what they've seen—when in reality unearthing this stuff would turn your hair white.

★½ (out of five)

After a run of post-SIGNS flops M. Night Shyamalan refuses to admit were justly ridiculed by audiences, he's still trying to claw back integrity with a workmanlike blockbuster hit (after that elusive gateway to franchise gold was denied after THE LAST AIRBENDER—a turkey that, for fans of the cartoon, rivals the similar fate of THE GOLDEN COMPASS). Shyamalan's turned to the weakening star-power of Will Smith for AFTER EARTH, which is based on a story Smith dreamed up. So that explains why it's yet another movie partly designed to give his son Jaden a job—after already playing his son in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS and headlining a KARATE KID remake because his parents were producers.

In a distant future where artificial leg technology's been forgotten about, but we have spaceships n' shit, humanity's living on the alien world of Nova Prime after evacuating the uninhabitable Earth a millennia ago. Unfortunately, their sanctuary's also home to cockroach-aliens known as Ursa that smell fear. Oops. The improbably-named Cypher Rage (Will Smith) is a legendary Ranger who can "ghost" (appear invisible to Ursa's because he can't be scared), which makes him a mighty warrior against the alien menace. It also means his son Kitai's (Jaden Smith) stuck in his illustrious daddy's shadow (ooh, like in real-life!), while also guilt-stricken over the death of his sister when an Ursa attacked their home and killed her. I don't think that happened to real-life sis Willow, although her pop career did end suddenly and I've never seen her since.

To cut to the chase, Cypher and Kitai find themselves the only survivors of a spaceship crash on Earth—which, we're told, is now crawling with predators that have evolved to kill humans. You'd think the absence of humans for 1,000 years would have the opposite effect, as animals would have no reason to attack a strange interloper that isn't part of the existing food chain any more, but whatever. Cypher's wounded, so Kita must prove he's a man by trekking cross-country to retrieve an emergency beacon to summon help. Luckily, Cypher has a multitude of flying drones that give him multi-camera eyes on Kitai's progress and an audio connection to feed him advice and pep talks.

AFTER EARTH is probably Shyamalan's best movie since THE VILLAGE (which I still consider really good), but it's a shame it can't help feeling like a Smith family vanity project. Will Smith's stuck in a similar creative rut to Shyamalan, so spends this movie trying to show a different side to his wise-cracking persona audience love. In other words he's intentionally tedious as killjoy Cypher; while his son Jaden continues to provide evidence his father's "movie star" genes have skipped a generation. I actually feel sorry for the poor kid, who clearly knows no other life beyond "being famous", and yet is only given the opportunities to live that lifestyle through the favours and goodwill of his celebrity parents. It's time he took some acting classes and started going to auditions under a pseudonym and a wig, or something.

Technically, AFTER EARTH doesn't look half bad. I quite liked how the ships feel like they're made of 80% cotton, and there are some fun gadgets. The CGI critters aren't too objectionable, and the jungle scenery's pretty. The basic idea of a young boy becoming a man in his father's eyes is a tale that's forever being told, with very good reason, and the script gets the usual moral across just fine. I only wish AFTER EARTH was more inventive with its limping plot, had cast a better child actor than Jaden Smith as the lead, and was directed by someone with a sharper eye for propulsive action sequences. It's only 96-minutes long, but there's a 30-minute dip in drama after the first 40-minutes that it never quite recovers from. No twist-ending.
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