REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

10 06 2016

Can two rabbits come out of the same metaphorical hat? Or two tricks from the same sleeve? Jon M. Chu’s “Now You See Me 2” does not really attempt such a feat. Rather than make a straightforward sequel to the 2013 magician caper, it goes in a totally new direction – essentially functioning like an “Ocean’s 11” style heist film. This entertains, sure, but it feels like a betrayal of the series’ core conceits.

The more interesting change from predecessor to sequel, however, is the transition of target for the magicians-cum-social crusaders known as the Four Horsemen. In the first film, their Robin Hood act harnessed the populist rage of the Occupy movement and used their cunning to get back at financiers who profited off the recession. Now, they face down a titan of technology with tyrannical aspirations of acquiring a chip that can surveil and sabotage any network on Earth. (On a pedantic note, it’s somewhat disappointing – yet maybe somewhat admirable – that the businessman is played by Daniel Radcliffe and no meta magic jokes are made around his appearance.)

Like “Spectre” last year, “Now You See Me 2” dives headfirst into Snowden-era debates over digital privacy. It only offers real commentary about the freedom from being seen in its conclusion, another predictably drawn-out labyrinthine affair. The film is primarily focused on the thrill; perhaps as it should be. When highly focused, as in an extended sequence showing the slight-of-hand of the disappearing card trick, it rightly claims the descriptor of “magical.”

But more often, it’s a lot of back-and-forth banter between the bickering magicians. The new presence of Lizzy Caplan’s enchantress Lula, a one-note annoying chatterbox with an aggravating infatuation for Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, makes the interactions chafe a little more than before. Their dynamics feel like a potential deleted storyline from 2009’s “The Proposal,” the only other writing credit from “Now You See Me 2” scripter Pete Chiarelli. His sensibility coexists somewhat uneasily with writer Ed Solomon – the only credited writer returning from the original – whose previous work includes buddy action flicks like “Men in Black” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Their tag team gives the film a little bit of everything, just not a whole lot of consistency. C+ / 2stars

REVIEW: Spotlight

22 11 2015

SpotlightMany a procedural, be it “Zodiac” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” has created suspense by following a straight, chronological line towards its ultimate result or finding. Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” a story of the Boston Globe‘s uncovering of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, takes a slightly different approach to achieve a similar goal. His screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, treats the journalistic investigation like solving a Rubik’s Cube.

In order to understand the magnitude of the discovery made by the Spotlight team, a four-person squad of the Globe‘s finest inquirers, it is crucial to grasp just how complex and intertwined all the key players were. The molestation was committed by over eighty priests in the Boston area, which alone is a staggering and abhorrent finding. But the complex web of officials in the church, in the government and in the community who enabled the abuse and remained complicit in their silence makes for the real story. Not even the press, celebrated as it is in the film, gets off without a slap on the wrist.

“Spotlight” respects the work of the team enough not to simplify their work into a simplified narrative. It feels effortless to watch and manageable to comprehend since McCarthy directs the proceedings with great agility, pivoting from one strand of thought to another without ever causing motion sickness. Perhaps only when the film nears its foregone conclusion, the publication of the earth-shattering article, do we fully realize just how many crossed wires they had to untangle.

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REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

28 08 2015

At this point, I am unsure how much good it does me to review “Avengers: Age of Ultron” as I would a movie.  I feel like it would be more useful to write up the experience of the film as a writer for Consumer Reports would describe a car – with matter-of-fact bullet-points and statistics.  What is the point of trying to capture the artistry of a film in the intricacies of prose when that film is little more than a top-of-the-line product?

The latest item off the “Avengers” conveyer belt amounts to little more than an 150 minute billboard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Perhaps the one notable difference between “Age of Ultron” and its predecessor is that the events tend to sow discord that cleaves a wedge between the heroes as opposed to uniting them.  (I can only assume that was a decision that arose organically from the material and not as some kind of tie-in to the impending “Civil War.”)

Maestro Joss Whedon ensures that the film matches all the tech specs any fan looks for in a comic book movie.  It has action sequences the way cars have cupholders.  To top it all off, he assembles a climax that feels like it could (and maybe should) just exist as its own movie and is probably fetishized in the same way automotive aficionados value a powerful engine.  Maybe some of this would be exciting if it were not so painfully predictable.  Rather than inspiring me to marvel at the screen, it just made me feel numb.

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REVIEW: Infinitely Polar Bear

3 07 2015

Infinitely Polar BearMaya Forbes’ “Infinitely Polar Bear” is undoubtedly a drama, yet I was on the edge of my seat practically the entire movie.  That’s not because the movie also doubles as a thriller, though.  The film makes for a nerve-wracking experience because it follows manic depressive father, Mark Ruffalo’s Cameron, whose fragile stability of mind gets a real test when he has to assume sole parenting duties for his two daughters.

The decision is not one that he comes to lightly, but he takes on the responsibility to impress his estranged wife, Zoe Saldana’s Maggie, who impulsively married him in the ’60s when everyone was somewhat crazy.  But as the manic energy of that decade gave way to the headache of the late ’70s, Maggie discovers she needs an MBA to provide for her family.  She gets a generous scholarship from Columbia University, which is great … except that she cannot afford to relocate her two daughters from Boston to New York City.

Cameron appears to be on the mend, but nothing seems certain for him.  One of the first scenes in “Infinitely Polar Bear” shows him suffering a mental breakdown, a sight Forbes makes us desperately afraid of seeing again.  The stakes are high for Cameron as caretaker since another episode means more than self-destruction; it could directly harm two innocent young girls.

Ruffalo plays his character with a fierce commitment, never overzealously veering into exaggeration or stereotype.  Cameron really does mean well, and it proves extremely frustrating to watch him get in the way of his own good intentions.  He slowly learns how to parent Faith and Amelia, but thankfully, Forbes never tries to peddle the “love cures mental illness” message proffered by “Silver Linings Playbook.”  All progress here is hard-fought and earned.

“Infinitely Polar Bear” also looks beyond Cameron’s struggles and shines a light on those that Maggie must face.  As a mother and wife, she makes tough choices and tremendous sacrifices – only to have powerful men make sexist assumptions that she selfishly abdicated her duties.  Where pain abounds, love must rush in to soothe the hurt, and Forbes powerfully and movingly demonstrates the many different forms that love can assume.  B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: Foxcatcher

12 11 2014

FoxcatcherTelluride Film Festival

In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.  The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”

This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America.  Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind.  The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation.  What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.

Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.

The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”

His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination.  The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances.  What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.

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REVIEW: Begin Again

2 07 2014

Begin AgainJohn Carney’s “Begin Again” was first screened for audiences under the title “Can A Song Save Your Life?”  An interesting question, to be sure, but perhaps not the right one … or at least not the one preoccupying most viewers.  Their biggest question is (or ought to be), can these songs save this movie?

The answer is, well, not exactly.  “Begin Again” flaunts some pleasant ditties, including a few from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (great for boosting soundtrack sales) and several from the surprisingly smooth pipes of Keira Kinghtley.  But they are rather breezy and generic tunes, not quite the game-changing classics Carney and his film make them out to be.

While I’m not a music critic (and do not intend to masquerade as one), I do feel that I can comment on how the tracks are incorporated into the film with relative authority.  And in “Begin Again,” the songs play out rather like music videos, with the one exception of Knightley’s strikingly beautiful opening number about isolation in the Big Apple.  Furthermore, they never reveal anything about the characters participating in their creation (see the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” for a masterclass).

These songs reflect the larger issue with “Begin Again,” which is that it provides a surface-level treatment of just about everything it touches.  Carney occasionally proffers a profound musing on music, both its art and its commerce, but never really explores them fully.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 20, 2014)

20 06 2014

Rian Johnson was announced this week as the next major architect in the “Star Wars” franchise, which was met with cheers from the fanboys.  And understandbly so, as Johnson is a brilliant creative mind who has recently given us the ingenious “Looper” as well as some of the best episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

But as for me, on the other hand, I found myself rather peeved.  The house that Lucas built will require non-stop attention for several years, leaving the cinemas without Johnson’s voice in peculiar but always memorable films.  He’s a master of mining subgenres for unexplored territory, be they high school movies or time travel sci-fi pics.  Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” not your average heist flick, is a unique and underappreciated film that earns my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Not unlike this year’s Best Picture nominated “American Hustle,” the film uses the art of the con as a means to explore individual identity as well as the nature of storytelling.  Filmmakers and hustlers often pull from the same theoretical toolbox, using the art of illusion to manipulate us into feeling exactly what they want us to feel.  As Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen puts it at one point in “The Brothers Bloom,” the perfect con is the one where  everyone involved gets just what they wanted.

While I’ll stop short of calling this a perfect movie, it’s certainly a very, very good one.  It’s thoughtful and entertaining, a mix that seems to be increasingly less common.  The performances are great, too – Ruffalo and Adrien Brody star as the titular fraternal con artists who pull bizarre stunts with the help of Rinko Kikuchi’s silent pyrotechnics companion Bang Bang.  The three make a hilarious pair, lighting up the screen with their off-kilter chemistry.

But the real dynamo of “The Brothers Bloom” is their target, Rachel Weisz’s cooped-up heiress Penelope Stamp.  Brody’s Stephen manages to win her affection, luring the quirky loner right into their trap.  They let her in on their chosen profession, and Penelope eagerly jumps right into scheme.  Who’s conning who and who’s being honest often gets a little hazy, but every moment is thrilling as we see simultaneously more and less of who the characters really are.  Johnson’s writing gives them so much to work with, and it saddens me to think we won’t be seeing another one of his movies like this for a long time.