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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

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Jaden Smith takes a knee in "After Earth," now playing.
Jaden Smith takes a knee in "After Earth," now playing.

Shyamalan's "After Earth" shows no signs of life

I want to like M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. I really do. His early trio of films from over a decade ago ("The Sixth Sense", "Unbreakable" and "Signs" … yes, I like "Signs") is the stuff of brilliance, and any filmmaker would love to have one of those movies on his resume, much less all three. Every time I see a trailer for one of his movies, I can’t help but think, "This is it. This is the comeback." And every time, I’m greeted with an even bigger bomb.

It’s gotten so rough that "After Earth," the Smith family sci-fi project that’s too scared to come out as a M. Night movie, comes as a genuine sign of progress for the former Oscar nominee simply because it’s not an unequivocal disaster. No, it’s merely bad.

After an excessively scattered opening – complete with exposition-filled voiceover – we meet our pouty hero, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), a space ranger-in-training on the planet Nova Prime. It appears we didn’t learn our lesson from "The Happening" and ruined the Earth with pollution, forcing us to leave.

Nova Prime makes for a decent replacement home, especially with all of the new age furniture and drapes adorning the rocky dwellings. The only problem is the planet’s original owners: vicious, insectoid alien residents who don’t appreciate the intrusion and have a habit of using humans like grim Christmas tree decorations (it’s surprisingly intense for a PG-13). Thus the need for space rangers.

Unfortunately, Kitai fails the program because he does not have enough control over his fear, which is how the blind aliens find and hunt humans. It’s a disappointment for Kitai and his stern military dad Cypher (Will Smith), who is a legend amongst the rangers for his ability to control his fear and "ghost" undetected by the creatures.

In the hopes of coming closer, Cypher takes Kitai on a routine ranger trip that makes a very not routine crash-landing on Earth, leaving the father-son duo stranded and in Cypher’s case, dangerously crippl…

Zac Efron stars as wannabe race car driver Dean Whipple in "At Any Price," now playing.
Zac Efron stars as wannabe race car driver Dean Whipple in "At Any Price," now playing.

"At Any Price" an engrossing look at the seedy side of the corn business

In a summer season filled with superheroes, intergalactic adventurers and Baz Luhrmann at his Baz Luhrmann-iest, I wouldn’t blame you for overlooking the tiny corn industry indie "At Any Price."

Even with the presence of a couple of thrillingly captured dirt track races and stars like Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid, the four-word combination of "corn industry family drama" doesn’t quite sell as well as "more drunken Vegas shenanigans." For audiences looking for a respite from the usual testosterone-filled summer chaos, however, director Ramin Bahrani’s modest movie might just fit the bill.

Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, the ambitious, self-absorbed seed-selling patriarch of a large, multigenerational Iowa corn farm (his father, played by Red West, often drops by to tell him what he’s doing wrong, which, according to him, is pretty much everything). Don’t be fooled by his Americana profession, folksy Midwestern accent and pleasant-sounding last name. It’s a cutthroat business, with constant reminders to "expand or die."

Henry has taken this advice to heart, becoming one of the larger seed sellers in the region ­– "number one seed salesman in seven counties" is basically his catchphrase – through his hard work, friendly country bravado and a good amount of business schmuckery. Early on in the film, he visits a funeral to talk to the departed’s son about selling his land.

All at once, however, things start to fall apart for the Whipple clan. Food authorities are snooping around the farm, asking to look at his sales forms and crops for signs of illegal seed cleaning. Henry’s secret affair with an attractive local (Heather Graham) is less of a secret than he thought. Worst of all, his claim to being the top salesman in seven counties is put at risk by Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), a new rival.

Henry isn’t just jealous of Jim’s growing business. Jim’s two loyal sons are like an alternate universe version of Henry’s two boys. The Whipples' beloved eldest…

The Wolfpack is back for the last time (thankfully) in "The Hangover Part III," now playing.
The Wolfpack is back for the last time (thankfully) in "The Hangover Part III," now playing.

"The Hangover Part III" can't recover from rough second outing

Let’s not mince words: "The Hangover Part II" was awful. Shamelessly abysmal. Words cannot really describe the soul-sucking sensation I felt sitting in a packed theater of fellow audience members, silently watching "Part II" and waiting for laughs that never came. When critics open up their thesaurus of angry words and rant about the soulless, unimaginative laziness of Hollywood, about how they view audiences simply as big, money-packed wallets with legs, "The Hangover Part II" is what they point to as proof.

So yeah, "The Hangover Part III" is better than "Part II," but we’re not exactly talking about a monumental achievement. There are a few more laughs this time around (a.k.a. more than one), but it’s still clear that what happened in Vegas four years ago shouldn’t have gone any further.

For this final installment, writer/director Todd Phillips (who makes a cameo during a late parachuting sequence) and fellow scribe Craig Mazin thankfully ditch the Mad Libs sheet that provided the story for the past two films and come up with a new adventure. There’s no bachelor party this time, and we’ve moved very far from the world of hangovers. Instead, the Wolfpack – smug, well-groomed leader Phil (Bradley Cooper); uptight dentist Stu (Ed Helms); and socially inept manchild Alan (Zach Galifianakis) – is off to Arizona, taking Alan to rehab after his dad (Jeffrey Tambor) dies and an incident involving a giraffe on the freeway. The latter part sounds funnier than it plays.

Along the way, however, an angry criminal named Marshall (John Goodman) runs them off the road. He tells them their old gangster pal Chow (Ken Jeong, slightly less screechy than usual) stole $21 million in gold bricks from him. Now, the guys must track down their old nemesis and bring him – and the bricks – back to Marshall. And to make sure they get the job done, Marshall kidnaps Doug. Poor Justin Bartha; he never gets to have any fun. Do Phillips and company mistake him for Sean Penn and…

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto interrogate Benedict Cumberbatch in "Star Trek Into Darkness," now playing.
Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto interrogate Benedict Cumberbatch in "Star Trek Into Darkness," now playing.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" both a rollicking and rocky mission

"Star Trek Into Darkness" has all of the components to be an awesome summer movie spectacular. It has J.J. Abrams, the energetic blockbuster director who revived the franchise back in 2009 and had one of the best summer movies just two years ago with "Super 8." The spirited cast hasn’t lost any of its fun liveliness since the first installment, and the special effects-driven action is still as breathtakingly intense as it is breathtakingly gorgeous.

With all of that in place, it would seem the sequel’s phasers would be all set to stun. But something’s off. There’s a sequence where the starship Enterprise is flying at warp speed when a big, clunky-looking vessel comes up from behind and nudges it off its exhilarating track. That’s pretty much "Star Trek Into Darkness" in a nutshell, except replace the big, clumsy vessel with a big, clumsy story.

Captain, I detect spoilers throughout the rest of this review.

After breaking the Prime Directive on a fun, frenzied and emotionally full-gear opening mission, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) arrive back home to demotions. Their punishments are short-lived, however, as a Starfleet agent-turned-terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks his former organization, killing Kirk’s captain and fatherly mentor (Bruce Greenwood) in the process.

The attacks leave Kirk and the rest of Starfleet hungry for revenge. They track Harrison to a planet deep inside Klingon territory, causing the head of Starfleet ("RoboCop" star and Stevens Point native Peter Weller) to send Kirk and company off to bring Harrison to brutal justice. However, hastily barging into Klingon territory would almost certainly ignite a war between the two tense intergalactic rivals. If this sounds vaguely similar to 9/11 and the War in Iraq, the pre-end credit dedication to post-9/11 war veterans would seem to confirm that the bizarre allegory is no accident.

While Kirk’s original orders were to carpet bomb Harriso…