Now You See Me

now_you_see_me_ver3_xlgIt seems like it has been a long time since audiences were given a good movie about magic. Not since Nolan’s The Prestige or Berger’s The Illusionist  in 2006 has there been any that come close to being a success. But like those two movie gems, there is something special about magic movies when they hit their mark. They create the awe and wonderment that Hollywood cinema was built on, and this movie does nothing to interfere with that belief.

Now You See Me is the latest project of director Louis Leterrier, known more for his action movies (Transporter 1 and 2, Clash of the Titans) than anything else. A great cast has been assembled including starring roles for Mark Ruffalo, playing FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, Morgan Freeman as magician whistleblower Thaddeus Bradley, and the four horseman magician team of Michael Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). Throw in supporting roles from Michael Caine as a millionaire businessman and Melanie Laurent as Interpol agent turned Ruffalo’s muse, and you have maybe the most star-studded cast of any summer flick. The plot centers around four street magicians who come together to create an act under the name of The Four Horseman. Instead of just wowing audiences with their illusions, they decide that each performance will end with them robbing someone out of copious amounts of cash. Both Ruffalo and Freeman’s characters are hot on their trails for completely different reasons– one to put them in prison, the other to expose their tricks to the public. As straight forward as it sounds, the twists and turns of this movie are abundant and constantly keep the audience on the edge of their seat.

You know a movie is awesome when Morgan Freeman can wear a sweet hat and purple blazer

You know a movie is awesome when Morgan Freeman gets to wear a sweet hat and purple blazer

This movie is incredibly entertaining and a delight to watch. You will be hard-pressed to find another movie this summer that integrates comedy and suspense so well. Even though the method of each trick is explained by Freeman’s character shortly after it happens, the audience will still have many questions to mull over throughout the entirety. In fact, there is almost an Ocean series-type feel after each reveal. The back and forth between the affable Harrelson and smug, arrogant Eisenberg is extremely enjoyable, while the role of Ruffalo as a surly detective really shines. One of the really interesting aspects of this movie is the moral ambiguity of basically every character. Who is the hero and who is the villain? It is a very intriguing technique that only enhances the thrill of the movie. The negatives of this movie are two-fold. First, the supposed romantic relationship between Ruffalo and Laurent seems a little forced and bogs down the pace at times. It may be a necessary plot device, but their onscreen chemistry leaves a little to be desired. Second would be the overall filmmaking seems a little second class at times. Don’t get me wrong, the script holds up very well, but Leterrier’s use of lens flares and shaky camera during chases can be a little much to handle. However, neither of these aspects are enough to really detract very much from the project as a whole.

I think the vast majority of moviegoers will leave this movie with a great sense of satisfaction. The premise of this film is fantastic, and one of the few genre movies that gives an ending that does not fail the exquisite build-up. Even though this movie is a pure summer popcorn-flick indeed, the refreshing and original ideas are sure to delight and amaze. This is one film that should not have to beg you to “look closely”.

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The Avengers

The summer movie season has officially arrived, heralded proudly by the amazingly awesome film that is The Avengers.

Joss Whedon has a special place in my heart as one of the most under-appreciated directors in Hollywood. Although there’s some of his work that I could pass on, most of it is tolerable to a level equal of any other TV faire, or in several cases, some of the best work I’ve seen come out of Hollywood in years. His other work includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and my all-time favorites Firefly and Serenity. So when I heard that they were tapping Whedon to helm Marvel’s 5-year endeavor of bringing all their heroes into one unifying film, I was thrilled.  Whedon is a master at character-driven pieces, and with a strong potential for a film like The Avengers to become the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat visual effects buffet (where you know the food isn’t all that amazing, but there’s just so much variety and so much to try that you keep going back, even though you know you’ll feel awful for it later) that’s just what this film needed to keep it grounded.

To sum my thoughts up: this is the best experience I’ve had at the movies since seeing Serenity in 2005. Although I’m sure the film had its fair share of flaws, I was completely unaware of them because I was simply having too good of a time. It was filled with humor, action, and heart and even managed to bring me close to tears at one point. Never once did I consciously think about the 2.5 hour run time, which is an excellent sign.

For those that aren’t familiar with The Avengers, here’s a brief recap. A top secret government organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., under the guidance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is given the task of protecting the world from threats beyond the capabilities of normal men. In preparing for this task, they recruit the world’s greatest heroes (each of which joins the group from a pre-existing stand-alone film) – Iron Man, a.k.a Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk, a.k.a. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). They’re also joined by secondary characters Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson). Together, this team must defeat Loki (Tom Hiddleston), brother of Thor, as he attempts to invade earth with an alien army and rule over mankind.  Sound action-packed? It is!

They even manage to represent all of the primary colors in their outfit choices!

Here’s where I think Whedon succeeded the most. Each of these characters is amazing in and of themselves. You have Captain America -a super solider, the perfect specimen of man, Iron Man – a genius, billionaire playboy with a high tech suit of armor, Thor – a demi-god from another realm, and the Hulk – a scientist who becomes an unstoppable wrecking ball when he gets angry — and none of them get along. Ultimately, despite all their super-human abilities, they all suffer from such basic human flaws, and THIS is the genius of Whedon (who not only directed, but rewrote the script). Whedon gives us a reason for all these people to not only come together, but work past their differences for the greater good.

The unstoppable cloud from Green Lantern, which killed the strongest Green Lantern, and fought off droves of the galaxies best defenders... but was then defeated by Ryan Reynolds because he wanted it bad enough.

The film also succeeds in finding a villain which is not too easily defeated, but also not overwhelmingly powerful and still somehow easily defeated to conveniently wrap up the storyline (see Green Lantern). This is no small feat seeing as how the combined power of the Avengers would decimate just about any opponent.

On an acting level, Downey Jr. delivers that classic wit and charm we’ve all come to love from the Iron Man films, Evans plays the out-of-his-element good soul that won us over in Captain America: The First Avenger, and Hemsworth does a great job at helping the audience take the somewhat out-of-place absurdity of a demi-god seriously.

Finally a Hulk we can cheer for, as he smashes his way into our hearts with pure, unbridled anger.

But perhaps the most noteworthy performance is that of Ruffalo, who replaced Edward Norton as Bruce Banner after the studio and Norton had a bit of a disagreement following The Incredible Hulk movie. Part of it is the writing, part of it is the effects team, but FINALLY we get to see the Hulk as we’ve always wanted to see him. Not part of some artsy “soul-behind-those-eyes” interpretation by Ang Lee, but as a man with some control over the beast, that ultimately enjoys smashing things. It’s refreshing, and at times, quite hilarious. (Two specific moments come to mind, but I won’t spoil them.)

Agent Coulson was apparently brought on board for his super human adorableness.

If I had to choose a specific favorite character of the film, I actually think I’d choose Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. Coulson has appeared in several of the other Marvel films, acting as a sort of character glue to bring all of the films and their characters together.  His role is much more pivotal in this film than in the others. He almost becomes a representative of the audience – an everyman amongst super-humans, with many of the same reactions we ourselves would have. I won’t spoil anything else, just expect good things from Gregg’s performance.

Again, this film was so wonderfully executed, and although it probably won’t be an Oscar contender outside of the technical categories, it is a great little piece of escapism at the movies, and an enjoyable thrill ride. Marvel did it right with their plan to establish a universe for their films to co-exist in, and with Iron Man 3 starting production this summer, Thor 2 in the fall, Captain America 2 next winter, and The Avengers 2 after that, we can expect great things in the coming years. Now if only they can work out a deal with Sony to get Spiderman in the next Avengers film. Time will tell!

My opinion, well worth the trip to the theatre to see this film as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen. Although IMAX and 3D are not necessary. (I saw it in 2D and loved it.) And be sure to stay until the end of the entire credits. Marvel sticks in their usual stinger about a minute in which sets up some element of the next film, but this time they also gave an added bonus at the very end.  In fact, the cast shot the scene immediately after the Hollywood premiere. (If you look closely you’ll notice that Evans had to wear a prosthetic piece on his face to hide the beard he’d grown out for another role.) This added bonus doesn’t really add anything pivotal, but it’s sure to leave you laughing at its pure, simple randomness.

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Rating: 4.6/5 (7 votes cast)

Shutter Island

The Paramount logo comes up.  The score booms and forewarns us of impending doom from the get-go.  The promotional art tells us most of what we need to know: Some one is missing. The additional details include the time period: 1954, and the fact that two U.S. Marshals have been sent to investigate the disappearance.  That missing someone is Rachel Solando, a mental patient of the Aschcliffe Ward on the bedrock-barricaded Shutter Island.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio reteam for a fourth collaboration–adapting Dennis Lehane’s psychological horror novel “Shutter Island” into a feature-length film.  DiCaprio plays one of the cops: Teddy Daniels, while Mark Ruffalo tags along as his newly-assigned partner, Chuck Aule.  The duo must tread through an increasingly gloomy mystery surrounding Mrs. Solando’s disappearance.  Somehow she managed to escape her room, locked from the outside, get past the nurses and other guards, and work her way over and down the island’s cliff-side, all without wearing any shoes.  While it appears if she had waited 35 years or so, John McClane could’ve given her a few words of wisdom, but no matter, Aule and Daniels have to make sense of this disappearance with limited help from those in charge on the island.  The cops are given restricted access and dead-ends to everything they need in their investigation.  Daniels, our lead character, seems to have his own issues–from his nightmares of WWII Germany, to hallucinations of his murdered wife (Michelle Williams).  It seems Daniels took the case because of Laeddis (Elias Koteas), the man who murdered his wife, who happens to be institutionalized on the island.  Not only that, but Daniels has theories on what actually happens in this facility–secret government experimentation on patients.  The winds and rain increase.  Dreariness consumes the island, and the two investigators find themselves trapped.  Soon enough, Daniels feels he’s becoming a target and is warned by another patient (Jackie Earl Haley) that he’ll never escape the island.

I can toss and turn over what I think about “Shutter Island,” but at the end of the day–Mr. Scorsese and novelist Dennis Lehane succeed–their movie got me thinking, and very much so. That’s a testament to movies these days.  This nose-to-the-grindstone thriller captures sensible and thoughtful horror at its most pronounced.  While the master-filmmaker Scorsese throws in a few cheap-tricks, he does so with such looseness, that it all feels fresh, making richness out of elements that get thrown away in a teen slasher flick.  The movie isn’t exactly short on gore or disturbing visuals, or even heinous figures leaping out of the darkness.  What good ol’ Marty adds to the mix is a tightening claustrophobia, an endless trap of isolation, and cross-trekking mystery.

DiCaprio holds this all together quite well.  He has a multi-layered performance that deserves to be closely examined.  He remains somewhat distant throughout the movie.  Only through small doses of information and nightmarish visions do we slowly learn more of his emotionally-shattered history.  Add in reliable performances from Mark Ruffalo as a potentially untrustworthy partner officer, and two living legends: Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as menacing doctors overseeing the marshals’ investigation.

Technically, the movie is about perfect…absorbing, atmospheric, shocking, and alluring despite many moments during the film that feel unpolished, overlooked, and even clumsy.  Leave that to Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Shoonmaker to use to their advantage.  “Shutter Island” has been mapped out from beginning to end, with every detail serving a particular intent.  In fact, the film’s only drawback is that many movies have done much the same thing.  If anyone out there like me felt while watching the theatrical trailer for this movie, that something very apparent was being spoiled, don’t worry–you’re not alone.  In some ways, ‘Shutter Island’ follows a path we know all too well, and even then, it still has its surprises.  While not one of the best Scorsese films by any means, Martin and his ever-blossoming Leo create a haunting experience hinging on a ‘twist’ where the intended reveal is up to the viewer.  I look forward to a second viewing of ‘Shutter Island’ that may potentially further my admiration of this unmistakably involving thriller from a man who knows his movies.

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