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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OblivionMovie-Critics are calling Oblivion a mixed bag of sparse sci-fi plot threads strung together loosely and liberally.  They’re right.  I expected as much.  After all, what ground could the post-apocalyptic thriller have left to cover?  A future decades ahead.  Earth laid to waste.  Little to no survivors.  Futuristic machinery patrolling a ravaged globe.  Human technicians assigned to operate and repair the machines.

That’s the premise of Oblivion, which I suspect will mirror the upcoming thrillers After Earth and Elysium to some degree.  From The Matrix to 2001 to Moon to Wall-E to I, Robot and on and on, I could compare Director Joseph Kosinski’s film to many a science-fiction pictures of past.  That doesn’t hinder his film at all.  I anticipated I would spot similarities.  The film’s title even suggests where the story is headed.  Yet Kosinski’s canvas opens with mystery and intrigue that leads to grand places and ideas, even if they’ve all been mined before.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Reacher Harper, a pilot in the futuristic Earth, and one of the few survivors from an alien invasion led by Scavengers.  The Scavengers took out half of the moon causing vast planetary natural disasters, and humanity responded with nuclear warfare.  In the end, the aliens left, but Earth became a devastated habitat full of nuclear radiation.  Humans moved to a space station while Earth regenerates its ability to sustain life for a large population.

Huddled clans of Scavengers still roam the grounds.  Thus an army of government-produced drones monitor and control enemy activity.  But sometimes the drones are shot down or malfunction.  Harper, a drone repairman, keeps the drones up and running.  Outside of his job, he lives above the clouds in a technically advanced floating home base with his girlfriend and assistant, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors his movement on the ground level.  She also communicates with the command base from which she receives orders including Harper’s daily itinerary.

During a routine maintenance scout, Harper finds a radio beacon activated by Scavengers.  Questions abound.  What or who are they calling?  When they attempt to capture the leery pilot, Harper must investigate what little he knows about the Scavengers, what they might be planning, and how they might be tied to his dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he does not know but seems to remember.

oblivion-searchFurther developments lead the narrative into even bigger territory, and most of what is offered has been recycled but not necessarily for the worse.  Kosinski’s film is set apart from its film-brethren by its visual landscape.  This is an amazing movie to look at.  I’m shocked this film wasn’t converted and released in 3D.  I admire a director and studio not following the herd for an extra buck.  Lush nature is contrasted with the decay of nuked civilization, and giant hydrocopter versus computerized war drone battles couldn’t be composed any better.

The story eventually introduces a colony of humans led by the great Morgan Freeman, but unfortunately, much of the supporting human characters are underused.  Cruise leads the show, and proves ever-capable, but if Oblivion falls under the weight of its grand ambition, it’s because the script misses the underlying human factor.  The film focuses less on humanity’s impact, and more on the impact to the Harper character who must come to terms with the painful reality of his place and identity in a devastated world.

The plot doesn’t exactly move at a fast clip either.  Oblvion, while featuring some stellar visuals and action, meanders more often than drives.  Harper investigates location after location.  He returns to home base and discusses his findings with Victoria again and again.  The movie reaches the halfway-marker before really diving into some meaty ‘events.’  There’s a lot of eye candy throughout the film’s entirety, but this movie needed to pick a destination and operate via a concrete route.  This is where the film borrows heavily from other films and that’s okay.  But choose some key check points in the story along the way.

Kosinski’s Oblivion is still a film to admire in many respects.  Despite insanely good visuals, I really felt like the film didn’t have the feel of a studio product.  It felt like the objective of a filmmaker brought up under some great sci-fi movies who set out to pave his own from used parts.  He doesn’t deliver slam-bang-pow-wow entertainment.  He gives us a thoughtful action film supported by a magnificent production design and visuals that will last long after the story fades from memory.

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Olympus Has Fallen

olympus_has_fallen_posterThe first of two ‘White House-taken-over-by-terrorists’ flicks this year, Olympus Has Fallen, looks, sounds, and feels exactly like an action-picture relic from 1995, right down to the obvious dialogue and dated special effects.  It borrows heavily from genre staples like Die Hard and Air Force One, without ever providing a winning homage to either.

Olympus, from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua (who has spent the last 12 years of his career reminding us he made that movie), is heavy on loud banging, but devoid of any and all smarts.  Had this movie been made 20 years ago with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, it might be one of my classic go-to actioners, or at least a passable two hours of commercial-broken cable TV programming.  But instead, we are brought to a silly 2013 setting in which North Korean invaders savagely attack the most secure building in the world—and do so rather easily by cinema standards.  At least the film is unintentionally timely.

Aaron Eckhart plays the U.S. President whose staff majority and himself are locked away in the lower bunker of the White House with a group of baddies who want to start some good old nuclear war.  Cue the always reliable Morgan Freeman as the new ‘Acting President’ in negotiation with the terrorists, and Gerard ‘This is Sparta!’ Butler as the one ex-special forces Secret Service agent, Mike Banning, who escapes Korean detection and runs amok killing off henchman in the blown-up and barricaded war zone of the Executive Mansion.

Olympus-Has-Fallen-GI’m actually shocked this idea hadn’t made it to the big screen before now.  Soon Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) will bring his brand of Armageddon-ography to the proceedings with Channing Tatum protecting Jamie Foxx.  But for we now we get Fuqua’s efforts which rely heavily on insanely stupid plotting under the guise of enormous and unnecessarily gratuitous action salted with some awkward patriotic propaganda.  I wanted to like his movie, but his ‘Die Hard-in-the-White-House’ extravaganza doesn’t hold a candle to the action classics of yore.  Butler is serviceable but not great.  Freeman is always a plus in any movie.  But the rest of the cast is wasted, especially Melissa Leo (who is beaten to a pulp and dragged away saying the Pledge of Allegiance—an awkward scene) and Ashley Judd as the first lady who is only given the most uninspired dialogue in her precious screen time.

Not to mention every single scene in the film has been done with far more skill and assurance in cinema past.  Fuqua’s movie carbon copies some great Die Hard, Speed, Air Force One, etc. moments and can’t up the ante.  It can only dumb it down incredibly, ultimately becoming one of the year’s dopiest films as it marches decades past its expiration date.  I say skip Olympus and wait to see what Emmerich brings to the table.

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The Maiden Heist

The Maiden HeistI’m a sucker for a good heist or break-in movie.  From Ocean’s 11 to The Score to Mission: Impossible to The Great Train Robbery, it’s always fun to watch a band of robbers break into a secure vault and make off with a pile of loot.  Since break-in films generally follow the same structure (introduce characters, reveal impenetrable vault, set the stakes high, establish urgency, encounter conflict before reaching the goal, and either get caught or get away), what makes a good break-in movie are compelling characters and an interesting setup.  The stakes don’t even necessarily need to be all that high, as long as the characters are interesting and the conflicts are engaging.  And that’s exactly what The Maiden Heist is:  a stripped-to-the-bone heist flick with neither flair nor style, but exuding charm and class in every frame.  Sort of like a geriatric version of The Thomas Crowne Affair, the movie revolves around three museum workers who conspire to steal three pieces of artwork rather than let them be shipped off to Denmark.

Christopher Walken hams it up as Roger Barlow, a security guard enamored of a painting called “The Lonely Maiden” and vows to save it from being shuttle off to a foreign country where, he is certain, no one will appreciate it like he does.  He soon teams up Charles Peterson (Morgan Freeman, playing the part with a wink and a smile) and George McLendon (William H. Macy, doing his best William H. Macy impression) who also want to save another painting and a statue.  The three of them hatch a not-very-elaborate scheme to steal the pieces of artwork on moving day, and even though the ending is a foregone conclusion it’s a lot of fun getting there.

The Maiden Heist: Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy

Freeman and Macy, conniving over cotton candy.

Macy practically steals the show as a possible army veteran who may or may not have been involved in several military conflicts, but has clearly seized the opportunity to play out his version of a James Bond fantasy with the theft of the artworks.  His flamboyance and eccentricities are matched perfectly by Walken, who could hold audience enraptured by simply reading a nursery rhyme.  Thrown into the mix is Walken’s overprotective wife Rose (Marcia Gay Harden) whom Charles has convinced he is taking on a long-overdue vacation to Florida.

As the old Chinese proverb states, the journey is the reward, and that certainly holds true with The Maiden Heist.  The fun of the movie isn’t in wondering what will happen or if the triumvirate will succeed, but in watching it all unfold.  Walken, Freeman, and Macy are clearly too old for sneaking around, rappelling down walls, and that sort of thing, but someone obviously forgot to tell them.  They have such a blast playing not-quite-inept thieves that it’s hard to not enjoy it with them, and Harden’s hysterics only add to the mix.

This is not a film to be taken seriously, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half.  It could never hold its own against more technically accomplished and meticulously planned Hollywood counterparts, but then, that’s not really the point.  If you’re interested in a fun little heist flick, or have any appreciation for these three fantastic leading actors, The Maiden Heist deserves a rental.


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The Bucket List

I bet you’ve seen a Rob Reiner film, even if you don’t know it.  One of Hollywood’s seminal dramatic/comedic talents, he has been making movies for decades, and though his name doesn’t have the box-office draw of a Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, or Gary Marshall, he is like the tortoise to their hares.

Rob Reiner: Director, Producer, Actor

Rob Reiner: Director, Producer, Actor

Time after time he consistently puts out good, sometimes great, movies with well-rounded characters, moving storylines, and usually manages to pull top-notch actors into his projects too.  Consider the following résumé:

  • This is Spinal Tap
  • Stand By Me
  • The Princess Bride
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Misery
  • A Few Good Men
  • The American President
  • The Story of Us
  • Alex and Emma

This is just an excerpt mind you, and it doesn’t include Reiner’s extensive array of acting and producing roles either.  He certainly has a way of bringing stories to life and infusing his movies with charm, intelligence, razor-sharp wit, and endearing (if not always likable) characters.

The Bucket List, starring two longtime Hollywood heavyweights Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, is somewhat of a curiosity, especially given its pedigree.  The story is fine, the acting is good, the emotional heartstrings are well-plucked…but something is ultimately missing from this tale of two men making up for lost time.

Freeman plays Carter Chambers, a mechanic with the smarts of a Harvard graduate, who always let life get in the way of following his ambitions.  He has spent his years dutifully providing for his family while allowing his marriage to stagnate and children to grow up with a father (now a grandfather) who is merely existing, not truly living.  While in the hospital recovering from a recent cancer treatment he meets Edward Cole, a Richard Branson-esque billionaire hospital owner (oh, the irony!) who has spent his life in pursuit of fleeting pleasures and the almighty dollar, at the expense of a family or any real personal relationships.  Cole, wonderfully brought to life by Jack Nicholson who provides the right balance of dark humor and sarcasm, convinces Chambers to write down the things he has always wanted to do before he dies, and as soon as the two of them are well enough to leave the hospital, the take off for a jaunt around the world crossing items off their “bucket list.”

From then on the movie plays out like a road trip comedy, but without a destination there is simply an exploration of the two men and their growing friendship, renewed sense of vigor for life despite facing imminent mortality, and unwillingness to deal with shattered family relationships.  Freeman, channeling his Shawshank Redemption character Ellis Redding, is somewhat of a spiritual mentor-slash-guidance counselor for Cole, who (betcha didn’t see this coming…) can buy anything he wants but feels more alone and empty than ever.  As they crisscross the globe going on a safari, visiting the pyramids, and indulging in the finer things in life, I kept on wishing there was more of a connection between the characters.  The two grown men are brand new best friends who know virtually nothing about each other–kind of like a geriatric version of High School Musical, minus the singing and dancing.

Skydiving when youre 70?  Better late than never...

Skydiving when you're 70? Better late than never...

Without missing the forest for the trees, though, there is a lot to like about Reiner’s film.  While many Hollywood movies celebrate the fleeting glory of self-indulgence and living for the moment, consequences-be-darned, it’s refreshing to see a movie whose central characters look back on life and come to the conclusion that they would have been better off living for the good of others.  I also appreciate that a central part of Chambers’ life and family relationships is his faith in Jesus Christ, and he is even seen leading his family in a very sincere dinner prayer near the end of the movie.  And while I’m on somewhat of a high moral soapbox here, let me also praise Reiner for extolling the virtues of a monogamous marital relationship.  While Chambers and his wife do not have the perfect marriage, they are committed to each other and to their family, and Chambers even says that he has never been with another woman in his life (in many ways the opposite of Reiner’s earlier protagonist Harry Burns).

Aside from a few problems with the script, The Bucket List is an entertaining but often sad look at what it means to have a life well lived, and tugs at the very heartstrings so masterfully plucked by masters of the genre like Frank Capra.  In fact, I daresay that Capra himself would probably be proud of Reiner’s film.

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