Now You See Me 2


The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

(2016) Action (Summit) Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, William Henderson, Richard Laing, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Brick Patrick, Zach Gregory, Ben Lamb, Fenfen Huang, Aaron Ly, James Richard Marshall, Alexa Brown. Directed by Jon M. Chu

 

We are fascinated by the concept of magic, of someone performing unexplainable feats of prestidigitation. Magicians are almost like real-life superheroes. All they lack is the spandex and the inclination to fight crime.

At the end of Now You See Me the Four Horsemen – the Vegas magic act that was a kind of Robin Hood, taking money from a rich insurance company and giving it back to the thousands of people it defrauded – are on the lam. J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), the arrogant onstage leader of the Horsemen, is busy trying to investigate The Eye, the mysterious organization that controls them. Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) is trying to stay under the radar, Henley Reeves has left the group and Jack Wilder (Franco) has the world convinced that he’s dead. Their nemesis Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) rots in jail and FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is trying to steer his boss Natalie Austin (Lathan) away from the Horsemen since he is their behind-the-scenes handler. Dylan also has his late father Lionel Shrike (Laing) very much on his mind, particularly the stunt that killed him.

The Horsemen need a fourth and into the group comes Lula (Caplan), a street magician like Henley Reeves was although Lula is much more into the Grand Guignol than her predecessor. They’re going to need the whole lot of them because they are up against Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), a tech billionaire whom the world also thinks is dead (the world has a terrible track record when it comes to dead guys) who wants them to steal a super secret microchip that will give him access to every computer on the planet.

The chip is held in a super-safe location in Shanghai, so it’s off to China for the Horsemen, but Mabry has a couple of tricks of his own; for one, Merritt’s identical twin brother is helping him stay one step ahead of the horsemen and Mabry is the bastard son of none other than Arthur Tressler (Caine), the insurance magnate whom the Horsemen exposed and nearly ruined in the first movie. Mabry also has sprung Thaddeus Bradley from jail and he has nothing but revenge on his mind. It will take a whole lot more than a few magic tricks for this group to escape Mabry; it will take a genuine miracle.

The first movie was a frothy affair that was light on the credibility but heavy on the entertainment. If anything, the sequel is even lighter on the credibility but as far as the entertainment value is concerned…not so much, I’m afraid. It seems a lot less lively than the first both in tone and in pacing. This sucker chugs along with tons of exposition then an elaborate magic trick before continuing to…you guessed it, more exposition.

Caplan is actually a delight here. Her character is witty, sassy and very capable as a magician. More importantly, Caplan inserts some badly needed fun into a script that should have been loaded with it. I mean, magicians who are crime fighters? Come on! That should be a slam dunk. Instead it’s more like a three-point shot…..from beyond half court.

Ruffalo is still, as ever, a bona fide Hollywood star but his role, outed in the first film, is less mysterious here and therefore less interesting. We know who he is and what role he plays and moreover, so do the Horsemen (although there’s a bit of a pissing contest between Daniel and Dylan about halfway through the film). The unnecessary introduction of a twin brother gives Harrelson double the screen time and the film an extraneous character who not only wasn’t necessary to the plot but also provides an unwanted distraction. A good 15 minutes of screen time could have been erased from this too-long movie just by removing the twin.

This is quite a disappointment. I was entertained by the first but found myself yawning my way through the second. The stunts pulled by the Horsemen are, as the first, almost all CGI which again wounds the film terribly. I think as I did with the first one that doing the magic with practical effects instead of digital would only have made the movie better. I mean, rain falling upwards? In London? Maybe on a stage somewhere but not out in the middle of the street. Movie magic is one thing, but that would have been better served in a different movie, like one with a kid with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Now, the makers of those movies understood what magic is all about better than the filmmakers of this one do.

REASONS TO GO: Caplan is a welcome addition to the cast. The premise is rock solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the vitality of the first film. Makes an art form of the preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isla Fisher had to drop out of the film due to her pregnancy; Lizzy Caplan took over as an entirely new character.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Central Intelligence

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Now You See Me


 

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

(2013) Action Crime Thriller (Summit) Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Common, Melanie Laurent, Michael J. Kelly, David Warshofsky, Jose Garcia, Jessica Lindsey, Caitriona Balfe, Stephanie Honore, Stanley Wong, Laura Cayouette, Adam Shapiro, Justine Wachsberger, Conan O’Brien. Directed by Louis Leterrier

Magic is the art of misdirection and trickery. You fool the other person into thinking that you’re doing something impossible when all you’re really doing is managing the environment. Of course the bigger the trick, the more completely you must manage the environment.

The Four Horsemen are a magic act that is the toast of Vegas, playing sold out shows at the Vdara Hotel and Casino. Only a year prior however Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) was an arrogant street magician with ambition (although he’s kept the arrogance), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) was a mentalist who’d fallen from grace who has had to stoop to using his powers of observation for shaking down rubes, Henley Reeves (Fisher) was an underground magic act who had broken away from being Atlas’ assistant but found that the male-dominated magic world was no less easy on her own, and Jack Wilder (Franco) spent as much time picking pockets as he did doing sleight of hand. All four of them had received mysterious invitations via Tarot card – but sent by whom?

That didn’t matter much. Backed by insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Caine), they’ve hit the big time but for their new show, they have a hell of a finale; they send an audience member (Garcia) seemingly by teleportation to the vault of his Paris bank; once there he turns on a switch that sends a skid full of Euros through a vent shaft to rain down on the audience at the Vdara.

Except that the bank was actually robbed and this seemingly was no trick. This puts grouch FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) on their trail. He doesn’t really want any help but he gets some anyway – from comely Interpol agent Alma Dray (Laurent) and professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) who was once a magician himself but has found it more lucrative to debunk the illusions of his former colleagues on DVDs.

While the Horsemen are questioned, there really isn’t any way to pin anything on them. After all, they have a theater full of witnesses that they were in Las Vegas and only the insistence of the audience member that he was there at all – and the evidence of the audience member’s signed ticket stub in the empty vault. But it’s not possible that he could travel to Paris instantaneously, is it?

Dylan doesn’t think so. With the Horsemen advertising an even bigger trick in New Orleans, the FBI set to tailing them, but how do you keep your eyes on people trained to misdirect and trick you into think you’re seeing something that you’re actually not? And who is it that called the group together? And most importantly, what is the end game?

Leterrier established his career with the Jason Statham-led Transporter movies which were slick action-packed thrillers of an automotive nature (I thought at the time that they were even better than the Fast and Furious movies although the last two have since changed my mind). Here, he goes back to his roots following a couple of big effects-laden Hollywood movies (although this is still a Hollywood movie with effects), taking on a simpler storyline which is at the same time more complex.

There is a nice twist at the end which most won’t see coming but the movie is overall kind of uneven. The magic trick sequences are stunning and are some of the best moments in the movie. Ruffalo who is moving up the Hollywood ladder just about takes this movie over. My interest became more piqued every time he was onscreen. Not that the Horsemen are slouches (I did appreciate the banter between them) but I found myself drawn to him and his character. Freeman and Caine are two of my favorite actors but Caine is on so briefly that if you blink you’ll miss him (wasting an opportunity in my opinion) and Freeman kind of phones it in.

The actors perform some nifty tricks but their big elaborate ones are mainly established with CGI which is kind of disappointing; like the magic-themed The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, there are some pretty neat illusions but that movie performed them with practical effects rather than visual and the movie is better for it.

This is the kind of movie Da Queen adores, one with a puzzle set before an audience that isn’t easily solved. That it involves magicians is an extra added attraction for her (she loves magic), so she found this more to her liking than I did (she’d have probably given it a 7.5/10 which is higher than the rating I eventually gave it). I can see her point; the movie is clearly entertaining and accomplishes what it set out to do. I could have used with less car chases and less police procedural and a little more emphasis on the characters of the magicians themselves – they are so aloof for most of the movie that they become as well-rounded as mannequins. It would have been a much better trick to turn them into interesting characters instead.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo is marvelous. Magic tricks are nifty. Fairly clever twist.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on CGI.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few action sequences that might be a bit too intense for the very young, as well as a few bad words here and there and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Caine fell asleep in his dressing room and didn’t hear the director call a wrap for the day. He awoke in pitch black and remained until his cries for help were heard the next morning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100; pretty mediocre numbers.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Prestige

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: After Earth

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone


Jim Carrey is smirking because Steve Carell is signing a blank check; Steve Buscemi has his doubts that this is at all legal.

Jim Carrey is smirking because Steve Carell is signing a blank check; Steve Buscemi has his doubts that this is at all legal.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett, David Copperfield, Michael Bully Herbig, Mason Cook, Luke Vanek, Zachary Gordon, Fiona Hale, Joshua Chandler Erenberg, Gillian Jacobs. Directed by Don Scardino

Everyone loves a magician and why not? Their jobs are to instill wonder and mystery in our lives which are mostly lacking in both. And the modern Mecca for magicians is the glory that is the Las Vegas Strip. It is what most magicians aspire to – a long-running show at a major Casino and yet that can be a trap as well.

Burt Wonderstone (Carell) is a Vegas institution. His long-running show at the Aztec casino with partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) has run for a decade to packed houses and acclaim galore and to think it all started when he was a kid whose mom gave him a birthday present of a magic kit from renowned Vegas magician Rance Holloway (Arkin).

But times are changing. Burt and Anton’s “magical friendship” has degenerated into mutual loathing. Burt’s ego is bigger than all of the Strip casinos combined and Anton is tired of being treated like a flunky. Their latest assistant Jane (Wilde), whom Burt calls “Nicole” as he does every stage assistant has dreams of her own but Burt thinks of her as disposable eye candy who’s more interested in sleeping with him (which she isn’t). Most importantly, Burt and Anton are playing to half full houses, a fact not lost on casino boss Doug Munny (Gandolfini).

Also not lost on Doug is that there is a street magician named Steve Gray (Carrey) who has a TV show (“Brain Rape”) and far more credibility. He is the self-professed “future of marriage” who sleeps on hot coals, hold his urine for a week or does a card trick in which he pulls the card through a self-inflicted wound on his face. Burt and Anton try a stunt of their own which doesn’t go very well.

This turns out to be the final straw for Anton who quits the act as does Jane. Burt tries to do the act solo but this turns out to be a hideous disaster. It also nets him a pink slip. Reduced to playing big box stores to extol paper towels that make “stains disappear” and in retirement homes (where he meets a now-wizened Rance Holloway), Burt begins to discover what he lost in the big Vegas theater – the wonder and joy of magic. With Jane and Anton behind him, he begins to put together a trick so amazing, so spectacular that nobody’s even thought of it before. But can they pull it off or will their comeback be derailed before it starts?

I will admit to a certain amount of fondness for magic acts and so this was right in my comfort zone. It’s kind of ironic to see Carrey and Carell in this together; some might recall from Bruce Almighty that Carrey was the lead and Carell the scene-stealing support act. Now their roles are reversed. Carrey does some of his best work of his career as the megalomaniacal Steve Gray. Carrey is manic but not so over-the-top that it degenerates into mugging, one of Carrey’s signature sins. Here he channels Criss Angel and David Blaine in equal parts and throws in some Bugs Bunny for good measure. He is fun every moment he’s onscreen.

Carell is a solid performer who can carry a movie on his shoulders but considering the ample support he gets here he can be a little bit more laid back and less forced. He gets a little bit too laidback though and the character disappears at times (which is a neat trick in a movie about magicians). Arkin is as reliable an actor as there is right now and the recently Oscar-nominated Arkin again is amazing.

The movie is sweet to the core and you’ll leave the theater with the warm fuzzies. This isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to bring you any particular insight, nor will it stick with you too long after the credits roll. But it will most likely leave you feeling better coming out than you did going in and that’s a kind of magic all of it’s own.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet natured and inoffensive. Some of Carrey’s best work in recent years.

REASONS TO STAY: Needs more wonder and less muddle. Predictable plot points.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a bunch of dangerous stunts performed here that shouldn’t be tried at home under any circumstances (keeping in mind that most of them are accomplished here by special effects anyway). There’s also a fair amount of bad language, some drug usage and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the Burt Wonderstone character was originally Burt Dickinson.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wedding Singer

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Gatekeepers