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

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REVIEW: Youth

4 12 2015

From its opening shot, a twirl around a retro band covering Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” announces itself as an odd bird. To quote a project from star Harvey Keitel’s youth (which itself quotes Kris Kristofferson), the film is a walking contradiction. Many films set up dualities, even taking on a paradoxical quality, but this is really something else.

Despite its title, “Youth” is a film starring mostly senior citizens looking back on that stage of life through a foggy retrospective lens. Michael Caine’s Fred Ballinger, a retired composer, twiddles his thumbs in a Swiss mountain resort with Harvey Keitel’s Mick Boyle, a screenwriter still trying to plan his magnum opus with a team of industry neophytes at his beck and call. They pine for their younger years and opine on the frustrations of their more advanced ones, mostly just spinning their wheels.

Sorrentino matches their conversations with the style of his screenplay, a lax, discursive saunter that unfolds almost in vignettes. Separating these dialogue-heavy sequences are highly stylized montages of various guests and workers around the resort, each presented in a grotesque kind of tableau. (Except the lounge singer, for whom Sorrentino jarringly cuts from a performance to her chowing down on a chicken wing.) Be they the whorish fame-obsessed fans lusting after celebrities, a morbidly obese soccer player or a Miss Universe, all bystanders gets warped by his bizarre camera.

The people who get the most thorough cinematic treatment, oddly enough, are not the film’s two grey gentlemen. While they mosey around, much younger people in their field of vision find it quite easy to articulate themselves. Rachel Weisz, as Fred’s daughter and assistant Lena, hesitates little in expressing her disappointment with him. Paul Dano’s Jimmy Tree, a zen Method-style actor, loves walking others through his views in neat dichotomies. And, of course, Jane Fonda shows up for a cameo-length appearance as Mick’s starlet and muse Brenda Morel, an actress who certainly does not mince words in her big tirade.

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REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service

23 03 2015

Earlier in 2015, Matthew Vaughn hit a nerve with many movie fans when he took a giant crap on the face of reigning blockbuster king Christopher Nolan.  “People want fun and escapism at the moment,” said Vaughn in an interview, “I think Nolan kick-started a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it.”

I take issue with his statement for a number of reasons.  First of all, it just reeks of bitterness over Nolan’s success; the total worldwide gross of Vaughn’s combined filmography does not even come close to equaling the haul of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Second, it implies that serious action films are shoving lighter fare out of the market on both the level of the corporation and the consumer.

For me, I tend to prefer Nolan’s films because they so boldly test the boundaries of what our entertainment can be.  But at the end of the day, I do not want to live in a world where I cannot kick back and enjoy a blissfully funny, irreverent, and exciting movie like Matthew Vaughn’s own “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”  There will always be a place for well-crafted entertainment that knows the role it wants to play and fulfills its duties with gusto.

Vaughn’s film, co-written with his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, strikes a rarely found balance between spy movie classicism (like a Bond flick) and outright parody (a la “Austin Powers”).  They find the right times to shift gears, and the result is an experience that plays like all the fun of two movies for the price of one.  Overall, I found myself reminded of the hero’s quest of Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” hybridized with “Agent Cody Banks” (throwback – bet you haven’t thought about that movie in a while).

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REVIEW: Interstellar

9 11 2014

“We were meant to be explorers, pioneers – not caretakers,” utters Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper towards the start of “Interstellar.”  This declaration is true not only for the world of the film but also of its filmmaker, the inimitable Christopher Nolan.  As if exploring the deepest corners of the mind with “Inception” or redefining an entire cinematic genre with “The Dark Knight” was not enough, he has now flung his vision and ambition into the farthest reaches of space and time.

His “Interstellar” is not limited by dimensions nor encumbered by gravity.  It defies time and space entirely.  It is at once poetic and narrative.  It is a calculated work of science that also operates from a profound emotional level, wedding Kubrickian formalism to Spielbergian sentimentalism.  And most importantly, it inspires wonder and awe.

This is why, at least in Christopher Nolan’s lifetime, the movie theater experience will not perish.  His cinema is bold, immersive, and ultimately transcendent.  He goes beyond capturing an image or a feeling for what it is, showing the majesty it can embody and convey.  When at his calibrated best, Nolan can invoke not only a visceral reaction but also a spiritual one.

He is the undeniable myth maker of our time.  If that does not prompt loyal adherence, it should, at the bare minimum, command admiration and respect.  No one else working with this massive a budget is coming anywhere close to approximating Nolan’s scope or verve.  “Interstellar” is the latest shining star in his cinematic universe, and it shines brightly as a paradigm of balancing artistry and authorship along with accessibility and avant-gardism.

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REVIEW: Now You See Me

10 06 2013

Now You See MeNo one would ever mistake Louis Letterier’s “Now You See Me” for Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” that’s for certain.  But if not living up to the Nolan standard was a crime punishable by death in Hollywood, we’d have corpses lining Sunset Boulevard.

We pretty much know the drill in these magic movies by now and have come to expect the unexpected.  However, even if you know that the rug is going to get pulled out from underneath you, that’s better than watching a mind-numbing formulaic genre pic.  “Now You See Me” at least engages the audience and tries to get them guessing.  Granted, the film is only about as deep as the bag of popcorn.  But at least it’s something!

Leterrier does a half-decent job of playing to the film’s strengths: the off-color comedic stylings of Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, the allure of Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, and that singular authority commanded by Morgan Freeman when he comes into the frame.  Less effective is the FBI/Interpol duo of Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent that try to get to the bottom of the magic.  They’re an awkward pairing made worse by their segueing into a dumb and forced romance. (Sorry to semi-spoil, but you’ll see it coming the second they make eye contact.)

The film packs enough twists and turns to stay captivating and interesting even through the duller Ruffalo/Laurent segments.  Leterrier is smart enough not to dwell on the novelty and gimmickry of magic as audiences have been numbed to its power thanks to decades of CGI; his emphasis on the thrill and the audacity is what makes “Now You See Me” such fun.  Though it takes one surprise twist too many, it’s still a highly enjoyable movie that makes for great summer entertainment.  The fact that such a feat is accomplished with little more than a well-imagined story is quite magical indeed.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

29 07 2012

I don’t force every domestic drama I see to stand up to “American Beauty.”  Nor do I weigh every romantic comedy against “Annie Hall.”  So in a sense, why should I make a superhero movie stand up to “The Dark Knight?”  I consider it every bit as paradigmatic as the two previously mentioned Best Picture winners, so an apples-to-apples comparison is hardly even possible.  It’s more like apples-to-Garden of Eden fruit.

Indeed, a number of directors have tried to make their genre films a little more in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s iconic tale of the Caped Crusader, such as Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” to little success.  Yet even “The Dark Knight Rises,” the sequel to the revolutionary film itself, can’t recreate its magic nor cast a comparable spell.  Perhaps its time to declare those heights unattainable to avoid further disappointments.  If Christopher Nolan himself can’t reach them, surely it is time for Hollywood to find its next golden goose.

“The Dark Knight Rises” also has the added disadvantage of being scrutinized as a Nolan film, not merely a post-“Dark Knight” facsimile.  Coming off an incredible decade of filmmaking (five supremely acclaimed films: “Memento,”  “Batman Begins,”  “The Prestige,”  “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception“), it is hardly premature to call him the Millenial equivalent of Steven Spielberg.  His movies are so good that they have merited many a repeat viewing, allowing dedicated fans to really analyze what makes his work so exceptional.  Now, it’s immediately recognizable when his films are not up to the sky-high standard he has set for himself.  For instance, in the opening scene of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

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REVIEW: Cars 2

2 07 2011

Your favorite Pixar characters are back … and not a moment too soon!  In a fun-filled laugh riot, all your old friends remind you of the magic and charm you are supposed to feel while sitting in a movie.  There’s that characteristic Pixar wit that you just know will still be funny years from now with a nice helping of heart.

Oh, I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about “Cars 2?”  My apologies, that opening paragraph was referring to “Hawaiian Vacation,” the short film before the movie featuring the characters from “Toy Story 3.”  The latest Pixar summer outing brings back some of the most forgettable characters in their vast universe of animation, Lightning McQueen and the down-home American cars from Radiator Springs.

Thankfully, “Cars 2” feels like less of a letdown that it should following Best Picture nominees “Up” and “Toy Story 3” because it only has to live up to a prestigious brand name, not a beloved original.  In fact, it may be the rare summer sequel that is just as good as (if not better than) its predecessor.  Neither have the heart or storytelling prowess of the Pixar classics, but watching John Lasseter and pals do sub-par work is better than watching most other animated movies nowadays.

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