REVIEW: “Now You See Me 2”

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I suppose somewhere out there was an audience anxiously awaiting a follow-up to 2013’s wildly uneven “Now You See Me”. Still, you can call it the sequel I never expected. But modern day trends seem to indicate that when you bring in over $350 million at the box office against a $75 million budget chances are good the studio will push out another one.

So now we get the shrewdly titled “Now You See Me 2” with a slightly higher budget and slightly less money made at the box office. Still, $335 million is nothing to laugh at and apparently the series has its fans. Well they should be happy. “NYSM2” is more of the same – silly, a bit kooky actually, and all over the map.

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Roughly eighteen months after slipping through the fingers of the Feds, The Four Horseman (the pop stars of the magic world) await their next assignment from The Eye, the goofy secret cabal of magicians revealed in the first film. They get their next job but are thwarted and exposed by a mystery man who also outs their FBI insider Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo).

The Horseman (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and new member Lizzy Kaplan) are abducted by a weaselly, off-the-grid tech wiz named Walter (Daniel Radcliffe). He brings the crew to Macau and blackmails them into swiping a computer device called “the stick”. Director John Chu (perhaps best known for the “Step Up” movies) goes the full “Ocean’s 11” route. In other words the film is not just trying to be a heist movie. It’s trying to be a really cool one.

But there is also Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine returning from the first film. Both have their own angles, both of which intersects with Ruffalo. Add in a few new characters – Radcliffe who is pretty good and Caplan who is fine. But there is also Woody Harrelson in the second of his dual roles playing Merritt’s identical twin. It’s a wacky performance, a stunningly bad character and an even worse wig.

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And then there is the magic – rarely ever genuine illusion. Instead the majority is glaringly computer-generated making any impressive “Presto” moments all but nonexistent. And when they do try to offer up some form of explanation it’s too absurd to be taken seriously or with humor. There is the key heist scene which is actually pretty fun. It’s preposterous beyond measure and requires some of the worst security guards on the globe. But it’s an entertaining bit if you’re able to turn off your brain.

There is some occasional good chemistry between the Horseman and there are moments when you think the movie is going to fully embrace its corniness. I wish it had. Instead the smoke-and-mirrors story flies all over the place and never firmly lands anywhere. It’s a messy movie but not quite fun enough to call a glorious mess. Perhaps it is marginally better than the first film but I could never say that with any hint of confidence.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

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REVIEW: “Nights of Cabiria”

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Nestled within Federico Fellini’s impressive filmography is “Nights of Cabiria”, a scintillating Italian drama that is rarely mentioned among the director’s greats (“8 1/2”, “La Dolce Vita”, etc.). It’s a shame considering the film earned Fellini one of his four Academy Awards and is regarded by some as his finest work. I find it hard to argue against the movie’s brilliance and greatness.

“Nights of Cabiria” sits firmly between Fellini’s shift from classical Italian Neorealism to the extravagant sensory experiences we would get later on. The neorealist’s spotlight on working class society and  economic hardships is represented from title screen to the film’s final frame. But we also see Fellini experimenting with a more crafty and stylish form of storytelling. It’s the early stages of what would literally burst into form three years later in “La Dolce Vita”.

Getting the film made wasn’t easy. Fellini peddled his story to a number of producers each of whom turned him down. It wasn’t until Dino De Laurentiis approached him with a five-film contract offer that Fellini was able to make his movie. With funding set Fellini then cast his wife Giulietta Masina in the lead role. This was a critical step since the lead character is in practically every scene and since the story hinges on her emotion and personality. Masina would go on to win the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Masina plays a ‘lady of the night’ but not in the usual vein. Her name is Cabiria and there is more to her than her occupation. She is different – unique is several regards. She is significantly smaller than all the other ladies who work with her. She isn’t the most alluring or attractive. She wears her emotions on her sleeve. Simply put, Cabiria isn’t a woman who would naturally grab your attention, but that doesn’t sway her. Regardless of her obstacles, Cabiria pushes forward clinging to any semblance of happiness and holding onto an internal hope that somewhere true love awaits.

Despite her deeper innocence and naiveté, Fellini doesn’t portray Cabiria as a weak woman. She’s a tough cookie. She truly is a victim of circumstance who has survived due to her determination and wiles. For the audience her tiny shack of a home on the city outskirts is a sign of her tough life, but to Cabiria it’s a symbol of accomplishment. She proudly tells several people that she is a homeowner. And she isn’t afraid to be whisked away by a good dance tune – an effect of her sprightly optimism.

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But deep down there is a disappointment that she is deeply in tune with. The very first scene reveals it with uncomfortable clarity. She and her boyfriend are walking by the river in what resembles a romantic stroll. That is until he pushes her in and runs off with her purse full of money. We never see him again. The film is a series of encounters most with cruel outcomes. And Cabiria always seems to expect the disappointment and she accepts the hand she is dealt and moves on. Instead of concentrating on plot Fellini focuses on several tragic themes that grow more vivid with each of Cabiria’s encounters.

When developing the Cabiria character, both Fellini and Masina were said to be highly influenced by Chaplin’s Little Tramp. You can see it in her expressions, her mannerisms, and of course in many of her circumstances. There are moments when the resemblances feel a tad foreign to the tone of a specific scene, but for the most part it fits surprisingly well and it has such a unique contrast with several of the characters Cabiria meets.

“Nights of Cabiria” is filled with fine supporting performances, interesting visual touches, and poignant emotional moments. Fellini’s true-to-life themes simmer throughout the picture and many of them would resurface in “La Dolce Vita”. And at the core is Masina and her magnetic performance. She makes it impossible for us to lack sympathy for Cabiria despite some of the character’s poor decisions. We want her to rise above her circumstances and find the love she longs for. But as things progress Fellini leaves us cynical and skeptical. Like her we want to cling to the hope for happiness but ultimately fear the cloud of disappointment will be to much for her to overcome.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Nerve”

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In the age of Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, and Instagram I suppose it’s only natural that we get a cautionary tale on the dangers of social media and the World Wide Web. At first glance it’s pretty easy to question the need, but if there are kids in the world as dim-witted as some we meet in “Nerve” perhaps we do need a cinematic intervention.

“Nerve” is directed by the duo of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The two are probably best known for their clever 2010 maybe-documentary “Catfish”. The two movies are obviously different, but they do have something in common – both play with the connection between young people and social media. For “Catfish” it was limited to Facebook. For “Nerve” the playground is significantly bigger.

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Emma Roberts plays Venus Delmonico, but everyone knows her as simply Vee. She’s a smart and somewhat reserved senior in high school with an art school scholarship waiting if she chooses to take it. Contrast her with her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade), a rambunctious popularity hound who has become an internet “somebody” by playing a cyber reality game called Nerve. It’s basically live-streaming Truth or Dare where you gain money and (more importantly) followers by doing dumb stuff in public. The followers then dare you to do something even dumber and they watch as you stream it. Yippee.

Fed up with Sydney constantly pointing out her lack of moxie, Vee begins playing Nerve. Her first dare crosses paths with another player Ian (Dave Franco). Their followers team them up for an assortment of dares across New York City, each a little riskier than the previous one. The dares move from embarrassing to life-threatening and the game (much like the film) eventually gets completely out of hand.

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At times “Nerve” is presented like a music video – high energy, bright lights, pounding modern music. It all fits in with the film’s hyper pacing. The story never stays planted in one place very long which is probably a good thing. It keeps our attention away from the shallowness of the characters and the stupidity of their actions. And by the time we get to the final act no amount of fast pacing can cover how preposterous things become.

There is a lively, spirited heartbeat in “Nerve” that pretty much runs from the opening title screen to the ending credits.  Joost and Schulman deserve credit for sustaining that energy as they explore some intriguing internet-based themes. But the film is undercut by its story’s inability to finish and its flimsy handling of its characters. For example, you get the sense that the movie wants us to believe these characters are deeper than the surface impressions we are left with. It never convinced me. And by the time the story reaches its climax practically all logic is out the window. So for all of its hip style and colorful vivacity “Nerve” still has issues it can’t quite overcome. But then again maybe I’m just getting old

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

2015 Blind Spot Series: “Network”

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“Network” is a film that I have probably seen if you piece together all of the portions I’ve watched over time. But it qualified as a Blind Spot because I had never sat down and watched it through. I never could put a finger on what kept me from investing the time to watch a film that many categorize as truly great. Upon watching it in its entirety, I was reminded what first drew me to the movie as well as what pushed me away.

For me “Network” is a mixed bag that is hard a narrow down or label. To call it messy would be an understatement, but there is a reason and motivation behind its messiness. “Network” seeks to push every button it can reach. It strives to be a full-blown outrageous satire, an insightful look behind the scenes, and a sermon on nearly every social or political concern of 1976. Director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky never allow their film to be pigeonholed but at the same time its constant shifts in tone and voice, specifically in the second half, do more to distract than enlighten.

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The film begins by painting itself as a behind-the-scenes expose on a struggling television network. UBS makes the decision to fire their longtime evening news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) after a steady ratings decline. During one of his final broadcasts Beale threatens to kill himself on live television (an idea inspired by Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide in 1974). This infuriates the network heads who have him removed immediately.

Beale’s best friend and news division boss Max Schumacher (William Holden) allows him to appear one more time in order to bow out with dignity. Beale uses the opportunity to go on a mad rant which again angers his bosses but spikes the network ratings. Programming director and ruthless ratings hawk Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) convinces her boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to exploit Beale’s obvious mental breakdown much to Max’s disapproval.

But “Network” then shoots off into a number of unusual directions including an ill-fated romance between Diana and Max. Diana is incapable of loving anything other than television ratings while Max flippantly and emotionlessly leaves his wife of 25 years Louise (earnestly played by Beatrice Straight who won an Oscar for her whopping 5 minutes of screen time). It is a weird side road that only plays out in spurts. There is a compelling current in each of their scenes yet we are never allowed the time to fully understand the relationship.

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The film also branches off into a Patty Hearst-like side story complete with an urban leftist militant group directly patterned after the Symbionese Liberation Army. These scenes start off strong but intentionally grow more absurd. These things all clash together before culminating in an ending which is completely off the rails. Again, none of this is by accident. Lumet and Chayefsky have so much to say, so much to explore, and so many indictments. Some of it is chilling and prophetic while some gets lost in the melange of loud rants and pointed lectures. But somehow it is always compelling.

“Network” was a huge success in 1976 and was widely applauded by critics. It won a total of four Oscars (for Dunaway, Finch, Straight, and Chayefsky) and was nominated for six more. It is a film that does so many interesting things and it subverts nearly any expectation the audience may have going in. Yet despite its irreverent ambitions it is messy to a fault. The clashing between seriousness and satire is jolting and not always in an entertaining way. I also don’t think the film lives up to its own lofty feelings of self-importance. It ends up being an engaging but frustrating road full of many ups and some disappointing downs.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “No Escape” (2015)

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No this isn’t Martin Campbell’s grungy 1994 sci-fi survival flick starring Ray Liotta. You remember, the one with the prison island and the two warring prisoner factions? Okay you probably don’t and it’s completely irrelevant anyway. This is the serious and stunningly intense “No Escape” starring (of all people) Owen Wilson and Lake Bell. I know, which idea sounds more outlandish, right?

Well actually this “No Escape” is quite the surprise – a tense and effective action thriller featuring two unexpectedly solid dramatic lead performances. It’s having to endure an almost fashionable smearing from some critics armed with absurd accusations of xenophobia and exploitation. But the movie is far from that. It doesn’t connect all of its dots and there are a couple of narrative hiccups, but to call this movie “xenophobic” is doing it a disservice.

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Wilson and Bell play Jack and Annie Dwyer, a loving and committed couple (somewhat of a rarity in modern movie depictions) and parents of two lovely young daughters. Jack’s new corporate position has him moving his family to Southeast Asia. The move comes with its share of concern especially from Annie. But Jack remains optimistic, feeling this is the best way to provide for his family. The first person they meet is a crusty and scar-faced Pierce Brosnan. He plays Hammonds, a lush of the fellow who we immediately suspect isn’t who he says he is.

Things quickly go south when a violent coup erupts in the city. A Khmer Rouge-like army of rebels begin tearing the intentionally unnamed city apart killing innocent citizens and targeting foreigners. Jack sets out on a frantic and desperate attempt to keep his family safe and get them out of the bloody and chaotic political pressure cooker.

The film is written and directed by brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle. John Erick is known for dabbling in the horror genre and we get subtle reflections of that in “No Escape”. He spends a lot of time playing with tension and finding ways to move his audience to the edges of their seats. And that’s essentially what this movie is – a terrified family moving from one harrowing situation to another. This linear approach does leave you wanting at times especially when the film tries to cram so much contextual and moral meaning into brief conversations. But in terms of exciting escapist entertainment, the approach works nicely.

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Now to the controversy. Labeling the Dowdle’s movie as “xenophobic”, “morally repugnant”, “reprehensible”, or any of the other similar adjectives I’ve read doesn’t accurately represent this film. Neither the Dowdle’s vision nor their approach is that simplistic. In fact, the film’s greater message touches on spoiled and privileged Western perspectives as well as Western political intervention. You could easily argue that the handling of this messaging is clunky, but at the same time the messages are there and they are very clear.

To go a bit further, the filmmakers took their inspirations from an actual uprising and the movie attempts to maintain a sensitivity to that. This isn’t a film about international meanness towards wholesome, white, middle-class Americans. The murder and brutality is mostly carried out against the people of the city. It’s true, none of citizens are fleshed-out, personal characters, but that doesn’t automatically relegate them to window dressing either and it doesn’t automatically equal exploitation. Instead they serve to highlight the indiscriminate brutality of the uprising while also clearly distinguishing the innocent victims from the perpetrators.

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And I have to go back to Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, two solid performers who aren’t normally associated with this kind of emotionally and physically demanding material. They both give intensely committed performances and you never doubt their characters despite the situations they are in.  They each highlight a much greater range than I knew they possessed.

“No Escape” could have done a better job of giving context and defining the setting behind the violent turmoil that rages through most of the film. And it does spend more time showing Owen Wilson running than developing any character outside of the central family. But it sets its sights on being tightly focused thriller and it sticks to it. Thankfully it does what it does very well. It is a film loaded with thrilling moments and sequences sure to get your heart pounding and frazzle your nerves. “No Escape” makes it easy to overlook its shortcomings because you’ll be so fiercely absorbed in the next stressful encounter. That’s certainly how it was for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Nightcrawler”

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“Nightcrawler” is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and I have to say it’s a very compelling one. But it’s not like Gilroy is a stranger to the business. He has a handful of co-writing credits on his resume. His brother Tony has been writing screenplays since 1992 and his directorial debut was the Oscar nominated “Michael Clayton”. Also Dan has been married to actress (and one of the stars of this film) Rene Russo for 22 years. So Dan Gilroy has been around the movie business for a while.

“Nightcrawler” is all his. In addition to directing the picture he also wrote the story which takes a look at the sleazy underbelly of freelance crime scene videographers. Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the film and he continues to impress me. It has taken me a while to come around to him as an actor, but a string of really strong performances has convinced me of his talents. “Nightcrawler” may give us the best Gyllenhaal performance to date.

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Gyllenhaal dropped thirty pounds for the part of the unassuming Lou Bloom, an out of work eccentric living in Los Angeles. The very first scene is telling and gives us a good introduction to this character. A security guard catches Lou stealing metal from a construction yard. Lou jumps him, steals his watch, and escapes. He sells the stolen metal to a scrap yard and asks for a job. The manager pointedly tells him “I’m not hiring a thief”. Within these first few minutes Gilroy gives us several nuggets of information about Lou to process.

After coming up on a car crash Lou is inspired by videographer (Bill Paxton) who shoots footage of accident and crime scenes and then sells it to the highest paying news outlet. Lou steals a bicycle and pawns it for a cheap camcorder and a police scanner. After some rough early experiences, Lou captures some footage of a carjacking. He approaches Nina Romina (Russo), the news director of a struggling morning show, and she eagerly buys the footage. She encourages Lou to bring anything newsworthy to her first.

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As Lou’s ‘business’ picks up he gets a new car, new equipment, and a new assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed). He also becomes egotistic, more ambitious, and addicted to his new-found success. He begins tampering with crime scenes in hopes of getting more dramatic footage and bigger paydays. But Lou ultimately lusts recognition. As the film progresses we see more unhinged and sociopathic behavior from him and we begin to wonder how far he will go down this dark and twisted path.

Gilroy gives us a veritable smorgasbord of dark humor, biting satire, and neo-noir perspectives. There are so many clever machinations that keep things fairly unpredictable and uncomfortable (and I mean that in a good way). Initially it is the subtlety of the evil that is unsettling. Sometimes it is camouflaged within Lou’s quirky and seemingly mild-mannered behavior. Later his actions cross a number of disturbing lines and we see in him a cold indifference to what he is doing.

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Gilroy develops such a dark and twisted tone in large part thanks to Robert Elswit’s atmospheric cinematography and the moody score from James Newton Howard. But the brightest spotlight shines on Gyllenhaal and his sensational performance. He is truly terrifying but in an unorthodox sense. It’s Gyllenhaal’s appearance, his expressions, his postures. But it’s also his inconspicuousness. His character is someone that could gel into society without anyone noticing his existence. Russo is also very good and she gives us an entirely different form of evil. Television ratings at all costs, morals and ethics out the window. But I do think her character is a tad too broad and at times absurdly unethical.

“Nightcrawler” has been getting a lot of praise and I can see why. It’s such a creepy, tense, and efficient crime/psychological thriller. I certainly don’t think it’s the modern day “Taxi Driver” as some critics are calling it and it doesn’t strike all of the chords it wants to. For example its sleepy little jabs at the all-American way and the entrepreneurial spirit come off as a tad weak. But it is definitely effective in far more areas than not and it doesn’t follow any routine conventional path. Add a phenomenal Jake Gyllenhaal performance to that and it’s easy to see why this film works so well.

VERDICT – 4 STARS