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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Into the Storm


They're not in Kansas anymore.

They’re not in Kansas anymore.

(2014) Disaster (New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep, Scott Lawrence, David Drumm, Brandon Ruiter, Jimmy Groce, Linda Gehringer, Keala Wayne Winterhalt, Maryanne Nagel, London Elise Moore. Directed by Steven Quale

In this era of climate change and super storms, we have seen Mother Nature’s fury at levels unprecedented in our lifetime and scientists tell us it’s only going to get worse. That may send a chill through most of us but through Hollywood filmmakers it might be classified as more of a thrill.

Silverton, Oklahoma is very much like many small towns its size throughout the United States. High school seniors graduate amid what pomp and circumstance their towns can muster. Teens suffer from a feeling that their parents don’t listen to them. Lovelorn boys work up the courage to talk to beautiful young girls. Video projects get corrupted and need to be redone. Redneck idiots get drunk and do stupid things all for the sake of YouTube glory. And sometimes, bad storms cause havoc.

Gary Morris (Armitage) is the vice-principal at Silverton High School and both of his sons – Donnie (Deacon) and Trey (Kress) attend the school. Donnie is something of a video nerd, president of the school’s audio-visual club and charged with recording the graduation ceremony. He has also been assigned by his father the making of a video time capsule to chronicle his high school years to deliver to himself 25 years later (an excellent idea by the way).

Pete (Walsh) is a storm chaser and documentary filmmaker who is frustrated with the lack of success this storm season. His funding is on the verge of being pulled and his meteorological expert Allison (Callies) has been spectacularly unsuccessful at using the weather data to predict where tornadoes might appear. However, a super cell has formed and there is hope that it will generate enough tornadoes to finally get Pete the shots he needs to complete his documentary. Taking the armored vehicle TITUS which has the ability to lock into the ground and withstand winds of up to 170 MPH, Pete, Allison, cameraman Jacob (Sumpter) and technicians Daryl (Escarpeta) and Lucas (Whitaker) head to where Allison believes the tornadoes will form – Silverton, Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Donnie overhears Kaitlyn (Carey) being told that her video project had to be turned in that week for her to be considered for a summer internship, even though the video was hopelessly corrupted and needs to be reshot. Prompted by Trey, he offers to help reshoot footage at the abandoned paper mill some 20 miles out of town, even though it will take place during the graduation ceremony he’s supposed to film. Trey isn’t happy that he is now responsible for filming the ceremony and feeling the wrath of Dad.

A couple of knuckleheads named Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep) – think of them as a real life Beavis and Butthead – are doing the usual; getting drunk, trying stupid stunts and dreaming of fame and fortune on the Internet when they see the TITUS whizzing by. Sure that something big is up, they follow, hoping to grab some storm footage of their own.

What nobody knows is that the storm that is beginning to form over doomed Silverton is like no other in history and the destructive power more than anything that they could prepare for. While a desperate father searches for his son, the storm chasers bear witness to an American town being wiped systematically from the map.

The good news first. The storm sequences are very well done with no two tornadoes ending up being too alike. Several strike during the course of the film and all with differing results and creating different types of danger. As eye candy summer movies go, Into the Storm delivers.

However, what happens between the storms is what weighs this movie down. The characters in the movie are given little development and exist essentially to be buffeted by wind and debris, to drive maniacally as tornadoes form around them and to wistfully call home and talk with their angry 5-year-old daughter (in Allison’s case).

The movie starts out going the found footage route, mainly using the footage that the storm chasers shoot as well as from Donnie’s video time capsule. Amazingly, about two thirds of the way through the movie, the filmmakers abandon this approach in favor of traditional cinematic forms to tell the story and then return to the found footage thing for a post-storm coda. It’s a bit jarring, and tells me that they didn’t have the courage of their own convictions to stand by one form or another. Commit to it or don’t do it.

Armitage, so good in The Hobbit trilogy and Callies who turned heads as Lori in The Walking Dead sleepwalk their way through this one. Both in their previous roles showed that they are compelling performers but there is nothing compelling here. Perhaps if they’d been given more to work with. Then again, one has to look at the writing credit to realize that the guy who wrote this also wrote Step Up: All In opening the same weekend to realize that this isn’t a screenwriter who specializes in people stories.

In a disaster movie, it’s not just about the disaster; it’s about those put in harm’s way. We have to have a rooting interest in them to survive and we just don’t here. Kudos to the special effects teams for the CGI storms that are breathtaking but this could have been so much better if they’d put in as much care and craft into writing characters that we care one way or the other whether they survive the storm.

REASONS TO GO: The effects work is worth seeing on the big screen.

REASONS TO STAY: The characters are essentially an afterthought. Feels like a theme park attraction more than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of tornado destruction and mayhem, some teen peril, a smattering of foul language and sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to keep their spirits up during a wet, tiring and miserable shoot, the extras would often spontaneously break out into song. A favorite was the Styx classic “Come Sail Away.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: What If

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

The Bourne Ultimatum


The Bourne Ultimatum

Matt Damon ponders how much cooler he would have looked if the production had sprung for a Harley.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez, Trevor St John, Daniel Bruhl, Joey Anash, Tom Gallop, Corey Johnson, Colin Stinton . Directed by Paul Greengrass

The most recent installment of the hit film series based on the John Le Carre spy novels, The Bourne Ultimatum picks up pretty much where the last film, The Bourne Supremacy left off, in Moscow. We pick up with memory-challenged superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) being chased by the Moscow police through the back alleys of Moscow. An injured Bourne finally makes his way into a closed for the night medical clinic where he tries to effect crude repairs, but he is interrupted by a pair of clever cops. They aren’t quite clever enough and he escapes once again, disappearing from the CIA grid.

Back in the States, CIA director Ezra Kramer (Glenn) is very eager for Bourne to be caught. Deputy Director Noah Vosen (Strathairn) believes Bourne is a major threat to the agency, whereas Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Allen) thinks Bourne is not necessarily out to take down the agency, but instead to get answers. Landy is put in charge of the hunt for Jason Bourne.

In Turin, a newspaper columnist (Considine) meets with a CIA section chief (Stinton) who gives the columnist information about Blackbriar, the successor to the Treadstone program that created Bourne (and that Bourne essentially destroyed). The CIA, apparently monitoring every cell phone call on the planet, picks up a call from the columnist to his editor that contains the word “Blackbriar” and immediately he is put under surveillance. Bourne by chance reads the man’s column (apparently he’s a big fan of the Guardian newspaper, since he reads it in another country) and realizes that the columnist may have information that Bourne needs. Of course, this sets off all sorts of mayhem, including a chance meeting between Bourne and Nikki Parsons (Stiles), the Treadstone agent who helped Bourne previously. Chased by the CIA, Interpol and quite probably some irate Girl Scouts, Bourne makes his way to New York City with the intention of discovering the truth about himself and possibly bringing an end to the game he no longer wants to play.

In a terse spy thriller like this one, you have to take a few things on faith, and suspend disbelief to a certain extent. It’s hard to believe that an agency with the technical ability to pick out a single word in a phone conversation involving two men not under suspicion for anything are unable to suss out a man entering their country undisguised under a passport they themselves issued. I mean, don’t they have computers at the airport?

Plot holes aside, you come to a Bourne movie for the action sequences, and here the movie doesn’t disappoint. Chased by assassins (and chasing them), evading detection by legions of agents and police, director Greengrass sets up a massive body count (not to mention an auto body count, as the film might just be worse for automobiles than for stuntmen) and extended action sequences which, while breaking no new ground, do cover old ground expertly. He keeps the suspense ratcheted up to 11 throughout most of the movie, with very little breathing room and manages to move the plot along with expository sequences without breaking momentum created by the action scenes – the one in Tangiers, by the way, might be one of the best you’ll ever see. However, be warned many sequences appear to be filmed by hand-held cameras. While this delivers a kind of you-are-there feel to these sequences, in my opinion it’s used a little overly much and gives the movie a kind of jerky quality that I found jarring.

Damon continues to do the part of Jason Bourne with extraordinary aplomb, rarely displaying much emotion but allowing the feelings bubbling below the surface to see the light of day from time to time. Strathairn plays a worthy adversary who picks up after Chris Cooper and Brian Cox from the first two movies and acquits himself nicely. Stiles does some of her best work in the Bourne movies and as the only other actor besides Damon to appear in all three movies, providing some nice continuity.

The movie takes place in several European cities, including Moscow, Turin, Madrid and in Tangiers, Morocco as well as New York City. The movie uses actual locations to add a further air of realism, a nice touch (which created some difficulties for the filmmakers – if you look closely during the train station scene, there are people who notice the cameras and point to them). While many of the secrets of Jason Bourne are explained (including his actual identity), there is certainly enough room left at the end for a sequel if the filmmakers and actors choose to go there which for awhile, it appeared they did until Greengrass recently withdrew from the proposed fourth Bourne film, leaving the status of the movie very much up in the air – Damon’s participation without Greengrass is certainly less likely.

Like most of the third movies, this one is pretty flawed but you can take some solace in the fact that while it doesn’t arise above its own ambitions, the movie nevertheless fulfills those ambitions nicely. In other words, you get exactly what you came to see.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome action sequences as have become synonymous with this franchise. Exotic locations that bring to mind the cold war spy thrillers that the source material was contemporaneous with. The tension is unrelenting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot holes are hard to ignore. Too much hand-held camerawork which was cliche even before this was made.

FAMILY VALUES: While the action sequences are terrific, they may be a bit overwhelming for some, as the sudden and sometimes realistic violence will be.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Among the pictures of terminated agents that Landy faxes near the film’s conclusion are producer Frank Marshall and actor Richard Chamberlin, who portrayed Bourne in a 1988 TV mini-series.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince