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: Olympus Has Fallen

3 03 2015

Lest we forget, the sight of the White House, the very icon of the American Presidency, in flames could have been a non-fiction tale (or a Paul Greengrass film). On September 11, 2001, United Flight 93 was likely headed to Washington, D.C. to take out the beloved building. So given that history, a modicum of respect – not even Christopher Nolan levels of seriousness – and reverence seems due for the landmark.

None of this registered with the makers of “Olympus Has Fallen,” however. Director Antoine Fuqua seeks to inspire anger by focusing on the sight of the edifice under siege, yet the film just feels too cartoonish in its destruction for any real emotions to register. (This is a movie where someone gets killed by trauma to the head inflicted by a bust of Abraham Lincoln, after all.)

Furthermore, the trigger-happy festival of gore devalues innocent lives taken by terrorists – NOT a smart move when trying to invoke the legacy of 9/11. As Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning seeks to rescue the prisoners of the North Korean attackers who take over the White House, the stakes feel rather low. In terms of hostage movies, this feels about on the level of a bank robbery.

“Olympus Has Fallen” will not even leave you chanting “USA! USA!” And, keep in mind, this is a movie that stars Morgan Freeman. What a squandered opportunity. C2stars





REVIEW: Transcendence

8 11 2014

As Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, Wally Pfister has lensed some of the most iconic images of recent cinematic history.  Be it the field of lightbulbs in “The Prestige,” the stairwell in “Inception,” or practically any image in “The Dark Knight,” he certainly knows how to captivate with the visual language of film.

Transcendence” finds Pfister behind the camera calling the shots, not merely setting them up, for the first time.  While no ultimate judgment should be rendered on a filmmaker after just one feature, Pfister might not want to give up his day job as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer just yet.  His debut is a start-to-finish mess, mostly because of its almost incoherently assembled script.

The film begins rather simply and intelligibly with Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, a scientist attempting to create a fully sentient computer, getting assassinated by a radical anti-technology group R.I.F.T.  But once he dies and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, “Transcendence” shatters into fragments.  Only Caster’s wife (Rebecca Hall) stays loyal; meanwhile, the rest of the supporting cast spreads out into multiple subplots that divide attention and diminish effectiveness.

Caster’s research companion Max (Paul Bettany) defects to join R.I.F.T. under the leadership of Bree (Kate Mara).  The G-men of the FBI (Cillian Murpy, Morgan Freeman) are also making moves of their own to stop the supercomputer.  Meanwhile, Caster’s digital brain grows stronger by the minute … so be very afraid, because technology is scary!

Pfister is not even able to translate this technophobia into any memorable images to at least portray visually what the story is unable to communicate narratively.  He begins “Transcendence” with a shot of broken cell phones lying around, practically begging to be considered a zeitgeist film.  But of all the sentiments Pfister invokes, not one of them comes even remotely close to resembling the film’s titular sensation.  He certainly knows how to make noise, but hopefully in his next film, Pfister will actually have something interesting to say.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: The Lego Movie

31 07 2014

Back in 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” gave audiences a pulse-pounding conclusions as it showed SEAL Team 6’s bold mission to kill Osama bin Laden in stunning detail.  Yet even as gripping as that was, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit when I saw who they cast as the finger behind the trigger: Chris Pratt, who I knew and loved as Andy Dwyer (and his FBI alter ego Burt Macklin) on the TV comedy “Parks & Recreation.”

Well, as it turns out, Kathryn Bigelow was as right about Pratt as an action star as she was about Jeremy Renner as a fine dramatic actor.  And now it’s Pratt who’s laughing all the way to the bank.  “The Lego Movie” proves that Pratt doesn’t even have to be present in the flesh to lead a movie towards some very fun adventure.

Pratt is like the world’s oldest 7-year-old, a lovable, innocent kid that you can’t help but root for because he reminds you of all the naive optimism of a simpler state of mind.  When his plastic Lego teddy bear of a character, Emmet Brickowoski, chants the film’s theme “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s hard not to smile a little bit.  He’s not just singing from a place of pure naïveté like Selena Gomez on “Barney,” but also from a position of contagious optimism that makes Emmet quite irresistible.

Thankfully, the writing/directing dynamic duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (they who blessed us with the gift of “21 Jump Street“) matches Pratt’s enthusiasm throughout “The Lego Movie.”  They bring a boundless imagination to the project, resembling the kind of creativity that Legos themselves spark in children all over the world.  What they ultimately construct is wild, wacky, and quite inspired. Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Lucy

26 07 2014

Lucy” may well be the most peculiar movie of summer 2014.  Director Luc Besson strangely amalgamates high-brow ambitions with B-movie antics.  It amounts to a simple-minded film about big ideas, something far less than Besson achieved on “The Professional,” but I’d be lying if I didn’t have a decent amount of fun on the ride.

Clearly Besson feels more comfortable in the realm of the non-human, staging vibrantly kinetic car chases and action sequences with flashy visuals.  These sequences have a definite panache to them, which is good given that they largely have to power the entire film.

Besson keeps “Lucy” moving at a swift clip, so brisk that you almost don’t have time to think about how excruciatingly bad his inane dialogue is.  It’s obvious that he views words as means to the ends of expression and plot development, not ends in and of themselves.  Worst of all, these unimaginative lines are delivered by Scarlett Johansson and company with feeling equivalent to rote recitation, rendering the film’s human element unintentionally laughable.

The film’s editing could have used some work, too.  Besson begins the film by heavy-handedly intercutting animals and prey with the events of the story (a clumsy attempt to be artful).  Then, he cross-cuts an intellectual lecture given by a professor played by Morgan Freeman (an obvious ploy to be taken seriously on an intellectual level) between multiple scenes of Lucy.  If you think about it, the edit really makes no sense as it either has no sense of time … or Freeman’s Samuel Norman is giving the world’s longest address!

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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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