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On Movies: Don't bother with 'After Earth,' check out 'Stories We Tell'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The sci-fi melodrama initially called "1000 AE" sprang from the mind of actor Will Smith, who envisioned it as an apt starring vehicle for his teenage son, Jaden, an aspiring actor and rapper. The idea was churned into a script by the computers of four screenwriters, including M. Night Shyamalan ("The Village"), who became the director, and it metastasized from a revenge drama (somewhat akin to "Moby-Dick") to the oft-told story of a rebellious son (Jaden) who must complete a dangerous journey to save the life of his proud father (Will).

The result, filmed mostly in the jungles of Costa Rica, is now called "After Earth"; and it is a really bad movie, with atrocious dialogue and appalling acting and clunky special effects. It has one good line, which unfortunately happens to be the last line in the movie and suggests for the first time that a bit of humor and self-satire might have enlivened the otherwise turgid proceedings.

The story is simple. It's been a thousand years since mankind exhaled the poisonous air of battered old Earth and set up housekeeping on a planet called Nova Prime. Peace in the new interstellar neighborhood is kept by the Ranger Corps, headed by a stern general with the comic book name of Cypher Raige (Will Smith). The dull beige Lycra uniforms the Rangers sport seem to add to the strange drabness that hovers over the project.

Cypher's son, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is a Ranger recruit, but not a very good one, and Cypher decides to shape the kid up by taking him on a mission. The ship runs into a dramatically convenient asteroid shower and ends up strewn in pieces across the Earth. Only Cypher and Kitai survive, and Cypher has two broken legs and various internal injuries. To save him, Kitai must make, on foot, a perilous journey of more than 100 kilometers to locate the tail of the spaceship and the ship's emergency beacon. Among the obstacles are sheer cliffs and rock-strewn riverbeds and the vicious chimeric beasts that have evolved since man deserted the planet.

Cypher is in touch with Kitai through a computer, and he gives orders to his son in an imperious but passionless voice that resembles a male version of instructions you might hear as you make your way through Franklin County with the help of an iPad. Other than the occasional out-of-character "Wow!," most of what Cypher says sounds digital, which may in part be an attempt to suggest military rectitude, but it does little to help humanize a character who is already only marginally organic. Kitai, on the other hand, can't stop grimacing and mugging and waving his arms around, as if he's being attacked by mutant Earthly fruit flies.

You can't really blame 14-year-old Jaden for his irritating face- and torso-twisting thespian routine. Some years ago, in college, I thought of myself an actor, and I even starred in a couple of short, cautionary films that were shown in high school. Much to my everlasting chagrin, I delivered every line with so much mugging and head-waggling that I left no room for any true emotion. Many years later, after a few beers, I showed one of the films to a friend who was a film actor and director. My friend agreed I was terrible, but said, quietly and kindly, "I could have fixed you in 10 minutes."

Jaden needs 10 minutes with my friend, or almost any decent actor or director -- perhaps his father. But even good acting across the board couldn't save "After Earth" from its general mediocrity. It's plodding, and predictable, and the action scenes seem perfunctory. This being a Shyamalan movie, you might find yourself waiting for the Shyamalan surprise ("Dead people!"), but no such luck.

‘Stories We Tell’

Sarah Polley, the esteemed Canadian actress ("The Sweet Hereafter") and director ("Take This Waltz"), is not afraid of complexity; and her new movie is a fascinating dissertation on a very complex and perilous subject -- her own family. The focus, at least in the beginning, is on her mother, a mercurial spirit who died young, leaving some secrets behind. In documentary style, Polley interviews her father, an actor, and her brothers and sisters, and then branches out to her mother's friends, particularly those who knew her when she was away from home, acting in plays.

As the interviewees describe Polley's mother -- or rather several not-entirely-compatible versions of Polley's mother -- the filmmaker illustrates the past with what appear to be old home movies. The viewer will soon notice that some of the "home movies" are actually staged recreations of events being described -- parties by a pool, vacations at the beach, family disputes -- using actors to represent the real participants.

As the movie proceeds, mysteries are unearthed and probed. And although we begin to get a rounded picture of Polley's mother, and some of her other families members, assessments change as new information is introduced. By the close of what has been an intriguing and revelatory journey, we know some of the family's secrets, but much of its mystery remains. In the end, Polley tells us, "Stories We Tell" is not just about her family, but about the nature of memory itself.

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