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 Hunger Games

This box office jaggernaut from another world has dulled Bella Swan’s newfound fangs, effectively pulverizing teenage angst and sketchy expectations to deliver a stateside phenomenon that can already be touted as 2012’s greatest success story at the movies.  Young teenage Katniss Everdeen’s fight to death has resonated with audiences in such a way that approaching the film with a critical eye at this point in the game feels a bit futile.

Based on Suzanne Collins’ immensely popular novel (the first in a trilogy), The Hunger Games catches us up in a nation known as Panem, a dystopian future arisen after the fall of commonplace civilization.  Human communities have been divided up into 12 districts that supply varying necessities for enduring survival.  Young Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled teenage archer, looks after her distant mother and helpless little sister, Prim by hunting for game (illegally) in the woods with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Gale and Katniss, unknowing lovebirds, ponder the idea of a life outside of a government oppressed society, but their conversation becomes interrupted as the community must gather for the annual reaping where two children (one boy, one girl) between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to compete in a nationally televised fight to the death.  The kids’ names are thrown into a large bowl where they are drawn by a froofy hostess looking like the perfect companion to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka.  The hostess is Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) representing Panem authority for District 12.

Despite Katniss’ attempts to assuage her little sister’s fears of being selected for the games, silence rips through the crowd as Prim Everdeen’s name is drawn.  Katniss lunges forward to volunteer in her horrified sister’s place.  A second name, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is chosen for the boys.  Katniss and Peeta have a shared past and rooted memories of their last interaction.  This adds to the drama of the two characters training together as partnered combatants that will eventually be forced to kill each other in a hostile arena.

A former Hunger Games champion, the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is tasked with training the District 12 contenders.  In his limited instruction, he encourages his duo to earn the admiration of the crowd as well as wealthy sponsors that will provide assistance via gifts in the actual games.  The training and lavish experience of the capitol comprise the film’s first half leading up to Peeta and Katniss being set loose on the battlefield.

Little information is given about the status of Panem, the history of the games, and the outlook of future society.  For non-readers of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, the audience gets dropped into the world of Katniss Everdeen without any background knowledge to go on.  In some ways I appreciated this approach, and in other ways I didn’t.  The Hunger Games was always going to be a difficult novel to adapt since most of the story is comprised of Katniss’ internal thought.  That simply can’t translate well onscreen, but considering the obstacle, Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) has delivered a satisfactory young-adult thriller hinging on Jennifer Lawrence’s commanding portrayal of Katniss.

It would almost be impossible to expect an excessively grim take on the story since the novel caters to a younger crowd and a rating of PG-13 was inevitable.  That, of course, holds the film adaptation back from illuminating the horror of the plot, as well as the violence which comes along with it.  Instead the film sidesteps graphic depictions of children murdering children, dulling the violence down, and steering us into Katniss’ human journey to protect her family.

Generally speaking the film is actually rather alluring and suspenseful despite the fact that this material has been played out before.  Battle Royale, The Running Man, and even Gladiator have all focused on government-sanctioned battles to the death for populous entertainment.  Hunger Games never sets its sights too high as far as examining a culture that adopts such moral imbalance as to let the government oppress such horrors on children.  You won’t believe a word or image of this science-fiction world that Collins has assembled, but you will believe in Katniss’ struggle to survive it.  The allegory here is that we already live in a mass media culture consumed by reality television giving us open doors to human misery.  The madness will likely stop short of killing for ratings and circus costumes as ‘common’ wardrobe.  At least I can only hope so.

But I must go back to Jennifer Lawrence who delivers remarkably in the lead role.  Of course all of the hoopla has been made about what a talent she is after her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone and her blockbuster status as the new Mystique from X-Men: First Class.  Strong female heroines come along once in a blue moon, especially in franchise form.  Lawrence brings Collins’ character to beaming light.  She’s stubborn, determined, strong, and completely family-centered.  The proposed love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale takes a backseat to the mission at hand—survive the games, protect your family.  In fact, the movie pays little attention to all the lovey-dovey hokum to the point where even I could have used a little bit more to make that aspect of the story a tad more impacting.  Don’t expect any of the romantic fireworks or steam found in the novel.  Little of it is present here.

That doesn’t lessen this solid adaptation which Collins had a hand in supervising.  The DNA of the novel is very present here.  With impressive talent both behind the camera and in front of it, The Hunger Games is a very entertaining and very human blockbuster franchise in the making that delivers for fans and casual viewers alike. I won’t argue that Ross’s film is particularly great entertainment, but neither was the book.  In meddling with such a violent subject, the story dulls a sharpened blade, but nevertheless lends itself well to some great human drama and noteworthy suspense.  Ignore the questionable CGI dog monsters that get zapped into the arena (that fail to work in both the film and the book), and you should become thoroughly engrossed by The Hunger Games.

 

 

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Zombieland

Z-land posterWhat is with all these zombie movies?? Is our culture really so morbid that we can’t get enough of seeing human bodies hacked to pieces? Zombieland (Dir. Ruben Fleischer) is only the latest in a veritable flood of ketchup-splattered, limb-laden flicks from the past few years in which humans are transformed into flesh-eating monsters and terrorize the few souls unaffected by the radiation, virus, or whatever.

The zombie phenomenon began as a trickle in 1968, with Night of the Living Dead (Dir. George Romero), whose two sequels didn’t arrive until 1978 and 1985. Those three movies were later re-made, however, along with new sequels City of the Dead and Land of the Dead. Add to that the Resident Evil series (Dir. Russell Mulcahy) and 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (Dir. Danny Boyle), and it becomes clear that what once appeared to be a few strange but isolated incidents is now an epidemic sweeping the world. Indeed, a trip to the movie section at Wal-mart will turn up no end of little-known, low budget zombie flicks that never made it to theaters, each boasting its “gruesome” and “shocking” qualities. And now, we are soon to be hit with a remake of the Worst Movie Ever Made, Plan 9 fom Outer Space.

Night of the Living Dead; the first zombie movie, and probably the best.

Night of the Living Dead; the first zombie movie, and probably the best.

The term “zombie” originated in Afro-Caribbean folklore, in which the dead could be revived by a “bokor” or sorcerer. By the 1950s, zombism (well, it’s a word now) was caused by radiation, just like everything else back then. More recently, zombism is usually caused by a virus, as in 28 Days or Zombieland.

As the bard will tell you, all fiction eventually becomes a satire of itself. Such was the case in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead in 2004. Shaun is not the best of films, but nonetheless demonstrates a certain comedic brilliance in the way it backhands the zombie sub-genre. Our hero, Shaun (Simon Pegg), is staggering through his mediocre life, working the same dead end job, day after day, having problems with his girlfriend, etc. Which is why the trailer asks “do you ever feel like you’re turning into a zombie?” As luck would have it, Shaun’s world is overrun by real zombies. But even with a zombie apocalypse is in full swing, it takes Shaun a long time to notice that anything is amiss. One morning, he stumbles, half awake, across a street, past a burning car and a distant crowd of zombies into his neighborhood quick shop. He retrieves a beverage from a refrigerator inside, oblivious to the bloody handprints on the glass door, and proceeds to the counter, barely pausing when he slips in something all over the floor. Finding no one at the counter, he drops some money on it and heads for the door. As he’s leaving, the clerk, now a zombie, comes shambling out of the back room. Shaun yells “hey Eric, I left the money on the counter,” and leaves.

Shaun: A hero must rise. From his sofa.

Shaun: A hero must rise. From his sofa.

Shaun and his friends survive one scene by pretending to be zombies; something that Zombieland borrows. Perhaps uniquely among zombie movies, Shaun ends with the crisis actually being solved by the authorities – and the zombies being employed in the service industry. The final scene is of Shaun playing video games with his roommate, who is now a zombie and chained to the wall, lest he take a bite out of Shaun. The point of it all being: If the recently dead did reanimate and seek to feast on human flesh, things really wouldn’t be that different from the way they are now.

But is that such a fresh message? Zombie stories always implied that civilization was inherently fragile and left us wondering if humans were that different from zombies. Dawn of the Dead takes place in a shopping mall, after all. Heck, zombie fiction was probably spawned by the breakdown of societal relations.

Zombieland is definitely more comedy than horror. It’s not even scary, unless you count the occasional cheap shock (industry term for when something jumps out at you). I laughed pretty hard, though. It’s hard to believe a movie that goes through so many drums of corn syrup could be this lighthearted. The main part of the action kicks off in Garland, Texas (“it might look like zombies destroyed it, but that’s just Garland”), where we meet our narrator (Jesse Eisenberg), who identifies himself only as “Columbus,” the city he’s from. He explains his rules for surviving Z-land, which are superimposed on the screen as amusing graphics. He then has a chance to demonstrate them in an encounter with three zombies (below).

Columbus practics Rule 3: Beware of bathrooms.

Columbus practics Rule 3: Beware of bathrooms; only one way out.

This 3D text actually provides a major source of entertainment for the film, being knocked over by running characters and spattered with gore.  You kind of have to see it to appreciate what I’m talking about. Columbus, a virginal nebbish who spent his pre-Z-land life playing World of Warcraft, comments “I might seem like an unlikely survivor, with all my phobias and irritable bowel syndrome, but I have the advantage of not having any family connections or close friends.” However, as he trudges down an abandoned highway, he has to admit, it would be nice to see a familiar face, or just any face without blood dripping from its lips and bits of flesh between its teeth. His wish is granted when he meets Tallahassee, a gun-slinging, whisky-swilling, zombie-killing machine (Woody Harrelson). No sooner have the pair begun to get along than they meet Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who swindle them out of their guns and transportation – time after time. Once again, it seems that even those unaffected by the virus are behaving like zombies – as Sweeny Todd put it, man devouring man. Columbus comments, “I’m not sure which was more depressing, the fact that all my family and friends were gone, or that fact that I’d never really had a family.”

Zombie kill of the week?

Zombie kill of the week?

Z-land diverges from from most of the sub-genre however, because amid all the gore, what it’s really about is the forming, not the destroying, of relationships. After risking his life to save Witchita’s, Columbus concludes “In Zombieland, if you don’t have somebody, you might as well be a zombie.” It’s an odd feeling as the credits roll, and you suddenly realize that what you just saw was actually a feel-good movie.

This flick has some genuinely fun moments, including one of the cleverest cameos I have ever seen, and a climactic scene in which Tallahassee runs through an amusement park with a huge arsenal, doing what he does best. All this, of course, is set amidst a giant playground of unlocked doors and all manner of goods and material comforts, abandoned by man kind. Maybe that’s what it is about all these zombie movies: the thrill of having everyone else out of the way and the world at your fingertips. Plus there’s the allure of a fun war – no remorse about “killing” the enemy. I have yet to meet a reanimated corpse or virus-induced cannibal in real life, but I think with our materialism and violent tendencies, a zombie apocalypse would be the least of our worries.

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